N. Koreans end visit to sailors held in Cuba arms case
PANAMA CITY, Panama - A North Korean delegation wrapped up Thursday a visit to Panama to check on 35 sailors held for allegedly smuggling undeclared Cuban military hardware in apparent violation of UN sanctions.
A lawyer for the crew, Julio Berrios, said he hoped for a solution in a matter of weeks.
He gave few details on the visit and said the delegation, which arrived Wednesday, traveled to Havana in the evening.
"The meeting with Panamanian officials was cordial," the lawyer told AFP.
The sailors were on board the freighter Chong Chon Gang, which was intercepted July 10 as it tried to enter the Panama Canal, on suspicion of carrying drugs.
Authorities instead uncovered 25 containers of military hardware, including two Soviet era MiG-21 fighter jets, air defense systems, missiles and command and control vehicles.
Both Havana and Pyongyang said they were obsolete Cuban arms being shipped to North Korea for refurbishment under a legitimate contract.
The communist allies did not explain why the items were buried under more than 200,000 sacks of sugar.
The ship's crew members face up to 12 years in prison if convicted on arms trafficking charges.
Berrios said the crew did not know what cargo the ship was carrying.
And they cannot be charged with arms trafficking because the military cargo is not operational, he said.
But Panamanian Foreign Minister Fernando Nunez said it was "childish" to think the crew did not know what the ship was carrying.
The prosecutor investigating the case, Javier Caraballo, said Wednesday said he will try to wrap up the probe in early November.
The North Korean delegation included political counselor Ra Yun Bak and Havana-based diplomat Ri Il Gyu.
The sailors are detained at Fort Sherman, a former US military base. They have access to satellite television, air conditioning, a dining area, a smokers' area and even a beach.
The Panama Canal Authority announced in September that it had slapped a $1 million fine on the ship.
In August, the Panamanian government said the United Nations had determined that the shipment violated sanctions against arms transfers to North Korea.
The sanctions were imposed over the reclusive country's controversial nuclear program. - Rappler.com