A Panamanian judge has acquitted and ordered the immediate release of three North Koreans detained last year for trying to transport undeclared Cuban weapons through the Panama Canal.
The North Korean freighter Chong Chon Gang was stopped last July and discovered carrying 25 containers of Cuban military hardware, including two Soviet-era MiG-21 aircraft, air defence systems, missiles and command and control vehicles.
The ship’s 35 crew members were arrested and the vessel and cargo seized for potential violations of a UN weapons embargo and as a threat to the canal’s security.
Panama initially released all except three senior officers charged with arms trafficking.
On Friday, Judge Carlos Villarrea finally acquitted and freed the trio, named as Ri Yong Il, Hong Yong Hyon and Kim Yong Gol.
He also acquitted the other 32 crew members.
Villarreal’s decision was based on the fact the incident “was of international character and outside Panamanian jurisdiction”, a court statement said.
Panama only had the right to convene the United Nations Security Council to allow the body to issue its own ruling on the weapons cache found, the judge said.
Additionally, the crew could not be held responsible because “they were executing and obeying direct orders from the state of North Korea”, he said.
Villarreal ordered the return of the more than 200,000 sacks of sugar used to conceal the undeclared weapons cargo but did not release the confiscated arms, saying the rightful owner was yet to be proven.
Both Havana and Pyongyang said the weapons were obsolete Cuban arms being shipped to North Korea for refurbishment under a legitimate contract and due to be returned to Cuba.