Crew of Plane Laden with Arms May Face Death Sentence in Thailand
The five-member Belarusian-Kazakh crew of a plane seized in Bangkok on December 12 with tons of weapons from North Korea may face the death penalty.
The Bangkok Post on Wednesday quoted a senior police official as saying that the crew would be charged with the illegal possession of explosives, punishable by "from two years to death."
Bangkok’s Criminal Court ruled on Monday that the crew, which included a 54-year-old Belarusian man identified as Mikhail Petukhou (Petukhow) and four men from Kazakhstan, should be held in jail until December 25 for further investigation.
The crew said on Wednesday that they had been unaware of the military nature of the cargo. "The Ukrainian air freighter Aviatek and the Georgian company Air West Georgia, the plane's operator, assured us that under the terms of the contract the cargo was civilian," the crew said in a statement announced by a Thai lawyer who visited the crew members in Bangkok's Klong Prem Central Prison.
The statement also said that during the loading operation in Pyongyang, the crew was staying in a hotel. "We found a sealed cargo aboard the plane. We only checked the fixings," the crew said. "If we had been aware that arms were loaded onto the plane, we would have refused to perform the flight."
The Russian-built, Georgian-registered Ilyushin IL-76 aircraft was found to be carrying 35 tons of weapons including explosives, rocket-propelled grenades and components for surface-to-air missiles.
The final destination of the shipment is still unclear. On Monday, the Thai government’s spokesman said that the aircraft was supposed to be flying to the Sri Lankan capital Colombo. But he said that authorities were investigating if the flight plan was misleading and the final destination was in the Middle East, noting the aircraft had recently stopped in the United Arab Emirates. "We believe after Colombo there may have been another destination," he said, adding that according to the crew, it had planned to refuel in the United Arab Emirates and Azerbaijan before flying to its "final destination" in Ukraine.
Thailand was obliged as a member of the United Nations to seize the cargo of weapons on a plane that landed at Don Mueang airport, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said on Wednesday. "The operation was the result of cooperation between the intelligence agencies of many countries,'' he said.
Mr. Abhisit said that the seizure of the shipment was in compliance with the UN Security Council’s resolution that banned North Korea from exporting any weapons. "If Thailand turned a blind eye and let the weapons slip through our security net, that would certainly cause heavy damage to Thailand," he said, "What we have done has been proven to be beneficial to the whole world, as Thailand is a good member of the UN."
Thailand’s National Security Council said on Tuesday that the weapons were not intended for use in Thailand and there was no indication of links to foreign terrorism, either the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers of Elam or al-Qaeda.
Mr. Abhisit said that the seller and buyer of the weapons were still unknown, and that there was no evidence that international arms dealer Viktor Bout was involved.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bout, who has been held in the Klong Prem Central Prison for more than a year on charges of illegal arms trafficking, said that he had nothing to do with the impounded plane.
"Media allegations that the plane belonged to one of my companies are fabricated and completely unfounded," the 42-year-old former Russian army officer said in a statement.