A five-man crew charged with illegal arms possession insisted their plane was headed for Sri Lanka and not Iran when it was seized in the Thai capital with a cache of North Korean weapons, their lawyer said on Wednesday.
Defence lawyer Somsak Saithong told Associated Press shortly after visiting the jailed crew that they also denied any knowledge of accused international weapons trafficker Victor Bout, who is in the same prison battling attempts to be extradited to the U.S. on terrorism charges.
The shipment was seized Dec. 12 when the plane made a refuelling stop in Bangkok, and there has been much speculation since then about where the plane was headed and whether it was linked to Bout.
“They told me they don’t know Victor Bout,” Mr. Somsak said. He quoted the five men - four from Kazakhstan and one from Belarus - as saying that their flight plan called for a refuelling stop in Bangkok before flying on to Sri Lanka.
But according to a flight plan seen by arms trafficking researchers, the aircraft was chartered by Hong Kong-based Union Top Management Ltd., or UTM, to fly oil industry spare parts from Pyongyang to Tehran, Iran, with several other stops, including in Azerbaijan and Ukraine.
Thai authorities, acting on a U.S. tip, impounded the Ilyushin Il-76 cargo plane after uncovering 35 tons of weapons, reportedly including explosives, rocket-propelled grenades and components for surface-to-air missiles. The plane’s papers described its cargo as oil-drilling machinery for delivery to Sri Lanka.
“They deny any involvement with the weapons or any charges they are accused of. They told me that their job was just to fly the cargo plane to its destination. They don’t know about or had anything to do with the cargo itself,” Mr. Somsak quoted his clients as saying.
The U.N. imposed sanctions in June banning North Korea from exporting any arms after the communist regime conducted a nuclear test and test-fired missiles. Impoverished North Korea is believed to earn hundreds of millions of dollars every year by selling missiles, missile parts and other weapons to countries such as Iran, Syria and Myanmar.
The Thai government has been investigating the arms cache and says it will send the results to the United Nations.
Mr. Somsak said the five men complained that they had been forced by police investigators into signing documents written in Thai. They asked to be provided with a translator “or someone who can explain to them what is going on.”
The report on the flight plan from the non-profit groups TransArms in the U.S. and IPIS of Belgium was funded by the Belgian government and Amnesty International. It could not be independently verified.
The report says the plane was registered to Air West, a cargo transport company in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Asked to comment on whether the plane was bound for Tehran, company owner Levan Kakabadze told Associated Press that he was unaware of the plane’s final destination.