News / Asia

Panama Lawyer: N. Korea Crew Prosecution Illegal

North Korean ship Chong Chon Gang anchored in Sherman Bay near Colon City, Panama, Feb. 12, 2014.
North Korean ship Chong Chon Gang anchored in Sherman Bay near Colon City, Panama, Feb. 12, 2014.
Yonho KimJee Abbey Lee
A Panamanian lawyer representing detained crew members of the North Korean cargo vessel Chong Chon Gang says his clients are being held responsible twice for one crime, a move he calls illegal.

Julio Berrios said in an e-mail to the VOA Korean service that the criminal indictment, which followed a $1 million fine for the captain and two other sailors, is double jeopardy, which prohibits a defendant from being tried again on the same or similar charges. 

“If the national law is strictly applied, the sailors should be acquitted,” Berrios argued.

Berrios also maintains the three crew members did not violate United Nations Security Council resolutions because they only apply to governments and not individuals.

He added that the North Koreans should be exempt from criminal prosecution because they were merely following orders from Pyongyang.

The prosecutor of the case, Robert Moreno, has rejected that defense. Earlier this month, he told VOA it was not a valid defense because the orders from Pyongyang were not lawful.

Moreno added that Panamanian prosecutors found e-mails from North Korean authorities to the captain, in which he was told not to declare the content of his cargo, proving that he was aware his shipment was illegal.

Authorities in Panama seized the Chong Chon Gang last July after reports circulated that the North Korean-flagged ship was transporting illegal drugs. Instead, the vessel was found to be carrying weapons in violation of international sanctions against North Korea.

Thirty-two of the ship’s crew members were released in February after North Korea paid $690,000 in fines; however, the ship’s captain and two others were charged for trafficking illegal weapons.

When asked about the sailors' health, Berrios said they are doing well. “The guards [at La Hoya Penitentiary] are treating the Chong Chon Gang officers with respect,” the attorney added.

Berrios himself visits his clients at least twice a week.  

A ruling on the case is expected later this month.

This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Korean service.

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