Three EU-based firms are suspected of trying to smuggle arms to Belarus and Russia in what might be the tip of a larger black market.
Czech firm Česká zbrojovka tried to export over 100 rifles and pistols via Moldova to Russia in 2020, according to a Moldovan document seen by EUobserver.
The shipment included ‘CZ TSR’-model sniper rifles, which can be used for sport or by special police.
Hungarian firm De Fango and Slovak firm XXeurope also tried to export hundreds of thousands of ammunition cartridges via Moldova to Belarus at about the same time, the document indicated.
The EU imposed arms embargoes on Belarus and Russia in 2011 and 2014.
And a Moldovan liaison officer shared the information – a 12-page PowerPoint presentation created by Moldovan law-enforcement authorities – with an EU diplomat in Chișinău in July to raise the alarm.
It also named Moldovan arms firm Cartuș, a Russian company called Alliance, and a Belarusian one called Outdoor Team in the alleged scheme to bypass EU sanctions.
“What are the documents required in EU countries to export [military items] to non-EU countries?”, the Moldovan document asked.
“Is circumventing [EU] embargoes by using states [Moldova] that have not ratified the embargo criminalised or entails only pecuniary liability?,” it also said.
Moldova’s foreign ministry confirmed one of the cases to EUobserver, saying: “The [Moldovan] government … stopped an attempt to export civilian ammunitions to Belarus”.
“They were confiscated and are currently being kept on the territory of the Republic of Moldova. The judiciary … has opened an investigation into the case followed by several searches last week,” it said on Tuesday (5 October).
“The ammunitions were imported from Hungary, but originally produced in Finland and Switzerland,” Moldova added, widening the list of potential EU culprits.
Moldova was “open to collaboration with any EU institution or EU member state agency investigating this case,” the ministry told EUobserver.
“The [prime minister Natalia] Gavrilița government … has made it a priority to fight against corruption and to clean state institutions,” it also said.
Slovakia corroborated fishy goings on at XXeurope.
“We can confirm that company XXeurope applied for an export licence for ammunition with a declared end-user in Moldova (for the civilian market) in April 2020. After thorough examination of the application, the Slovak MFA [ministry of foreign affairs] decided not to grant a permission for export,” it said.
“Slovakia applies strict control in arms exports,” it added.
“Czechia also fully implements all EU or UN arms embargoes,” its foreign ministry told EUobserver.
The Hungarian foreign ministry said it “complies … with the rules on arms embargo and other restrictive measures adopted by the United Nations or the European Union”.
De Fango, the Hungarian arms company, told EUobserver it “does not supply goods to Russia and Belarus”.
“All deliveries by our company are carried out exclusively with the permission of the competent state authorities of Hungary, observing all Hungarian laws and EU laws,” it added.
Czech firm Česká zbrojovka and Moldovan company Cartuș did not reply to questions.
XXeurope, the Slovak firm, which is located in Žilina in north-west Slovakia, did not list a phone number or email address.
Belarusian firm Outdoor Team, which is located in an industrial estate outside Minsk, did not reply.
A man who answered when EUobserver phoned Russian firm Alliance in St Petersburg declined to identify himself. But he said: “We don’t have any interest to talk about this problematic [sic]. It’s too big emotion [sic]. We don’t need to talk with you. Good day. Excuse me”.
For its part, the EU foreign service recently asked Bratislava, Budapest, and Prague to shed light on the affair in the EU Council, where member states meet.
The European Commission and Europol, the joint EU police agency in The Hague, have also been seized of the Moldova re-export scheme, according to internal EU documents seen by EUobserver.
“Moldovan authorities made a presentation about possible cases of violation of arms embargoes on Russia and Belarus from Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia,” a recent internal EU foreign-service email said, referring to Chișinău’s PowerPoint document.
“The alleged scheme involves manufacturers from these countries which exported weapons (pistols and rifles) or ammunitions to Moldova and then re-exported to Russia and Belarus,” the email added.
The EU foreign service declined to comment when asked if it was pursuing an investigation.
“In cases where the EEAS [EU External Action Service] hears about a potential case of violation of EU arms embargoes, it informs the relevant EU member state(s) and requests the necessary information in order to investigate the allegations and ensure implementation,” its spokesman said.
But the revelation of the Moldova scheme posed the question if there was a wider black market in EU arms to embargoed states.
And the EU foreign-service email highlighted a potential loophole in the arms-control regime.
“EU sanctions apply in the territory of the EU and third states cannot be found liable of violation of EU sanctions,” it said.
“In case of alignment of third countries [such as Moldova] on EU sanctions, it is for the third country to decide on the course of action under its own national law,” it added.
For the Czech foreign ministry, the existing rules worked fine. “There is no loophole in EU arms embargoes – if any end-user in the third country re-exports arms to embargoed countries, then it constitutes a clear breach of EU law and it is subject to an investigation,” it told EUobserver.
But EU guns and riot-control equipment have turned up in Belarus before.
These included German-made pistols brandished by Belarusian police against pro-democracy protesters last September, according to German broadcaster ZDF.
And they included Czech-made stun grenades used against crowds last year, some of which caused serious injuries, according to US think-tank the Atlantic Council.
The EU also has arms embargoes on Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, Yemen, and Zimbabwe.
But the Moldova-Belarus scheme showed that some of the EU measures were “just symbolic”, one EU security source commented.
“In general, the flow of arms and ammo to Belarus and Russia [from EU countries] is wider [than the alleged Moldova scheme], including other military equipment,” the source said.
Sometimes, the devil was in the detail of individual EU arms bans, which included derogations .
And for its part, the Czech Republic took an interest in tweaking EU rules on arms to Russia earlier this year.
“Coest discussed the CZ [Czech] proposal concerning a modification of the scope of the [Russia] arms embargo,” a memo dated 22 July from the EU Council’s Working Party on Eastern Europe and Central Asia (Coest) to its Working Party of Foreign Relations Counsellors (Relex), said.
But if anybody misbehaved, they should have known better, because another EU memo, dated 14 May 2019 and also seen by EUobserver, spelled out the details of the Russia and Belarus bans.
Some types of “civilian firearms” could be sold to Russia, the letter from Relex to the Council’s Working Party on Conventional Arms Exports said.
But nothing should be sold to Belarus because its sanctions included “restrictions on equipment used for internal repression,” Relex said.
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Odyssey Marine Exploration: Spanish court shelves case against US treasure hunters that looted ‘Mercedes’ frigate | USA
The history of the Spanish frigate Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes includes two grievances and one victory. The first of the former was when the British Navy sunk it and its 275 crew members on October 5, 1804, off Portugal’s Algarve coast. The second offense came in May 2007, when the US treasure-hunting company Odyssey Marine Exploration scooped up its cargo of 500,000 silver and gold coins from the shipwreck at the bottom of the sea.
Triumph came when the US justice system confirmed that the treasure belonged to Spain, in a ruling released in February 2012. But there was one more affront to come: a Spanish court has just definitively shelved a case into alleged crimes committed by the US treasure hunters as they were removing the coins. After a tortuous 14-year investigation, a courtroom in Cádiz has been left with no option but to let the probe die, albeit admitting its “bafflement” and “anger” over what it considers “unusual proceedings.”
At the same time as the legal process began in Florida to determine who was the rightful owner of the rescued treasure, Odyssey or Spain, a court in La Línea de la Concepción, in the southwestern Spanish province of Cádiz, began investigating whether the then-CEO of Odyssey Marine Exploration, Greg Stemm, and his team had committed any criminal offenses when they removed the haul from the shipwreck. Among the potential crimes were damaging an archeological site and smuggling.
The fact that the 500,000 pieces of silver and gold were returned to Spain in February 2012 – nearly 17 tons of material, which are now held in the ARQUA underwater archeology museum in Cartagena – is proof that the legal battle in the United States ended well for Spain. But the latest decision in the Spanish case, to which EL PAÍS has had access, leaves no doubt that the investigation into potential crimes has definitively been shipwrecked.
The three judges who were responsible for the case found that the shelving, which cannot be appealed, is based principally on the fact that the potential offenses have now exceeded the statute of limitations in Spain for trial. And the slow process of the probe, according to the judges’ writ, was due to the failure of the US justice system to respond to the letters rogatory sent in 2013, and that were needed if Stemm and the rest of the suspects were to be questioned by investigators.
“In terms of the lawsuit over the coins, the United States was on Spain’s side,” explains Ángel Núñez, a public prosecutor who specializes in cultural heritage and who was in charge of the case until 2009. “But it is true that when it comes to targeting one of their own nationals, they are not so willing to collaborate. And given that these were US citizens who are not at the disposal of the Spanish courts…”
The Spanish court probe into Odyssey had already entered into a tailspin before this latest ruling. In December 2016, another judge in La Línea dismissed the case. The private prosecution, which was brought by the company Nerea Arqueología Subacuática, appealed the decision but it was rejected. In a new attempt to not let the legal process die, archeologist Javier Noriega, one of the heads of this small company based in Málaga, took the case to the High Court of Cádiz province, in La Línea, the one that has definitively shelved the proceedings.
In their ruling, the judges add that they share “with the appellant his surprise, confusion and even anger for the, shall we call it, unusual proceedings with this case, at least since the year 2013.” The magistrates do not go so far as to specify what prompted them to feel this way.
Archeologist Javier Noriega believes that he knows all too well what they are referring to. He and his colleagues decided to take up the case – represented by the attorney José María Lancho – as a “professional and moral obligation.” They have since seen how “all of these years can be summed up by the end: exceeding the statute of limitations.” “They avoided entering into the substance of what happened to Spain’s cultural heritage,” the expert complains.
These unusual proceedings in the investigation which the judges mention and that Noriega suffered first-hand were reported on in the Spanish press. In March 2012, a former legal representative for Odyssey, with no authority, entered the courtroom when the judge was absent and persuaded court workers to photocopy the entire findings of the legal investigation so far, as was reported by the Spanish daily Abc at the time. According to Abc, such an action would have allowed Odyssey to prepare a defense against the findings of Civil Guard investigators and decide whether or not to actually take part in the trial.
The actions of the representative were very serious, taking into account that the probe was counting on a protected witness: a diver who had been threatened for having denounced Odyssey, given that he had knowledge of some of its activities in Spanish waters.
Now Noriega, 46, is gloomy about the end of a process that has occupied a significant part of his career. “As people who love our profession, it’s frustrating,” he explains. “It ends up being a defeat for all of us, for culture and for society. And if as well as that, the person responsible has gone unpunished, because of the statute of limitations, that’s very sad.”
Despite the legal setback, the archeologist argues that the court probe contains “evidence of all kinds, archeological, from witnesses, technical, juridical, and a ton of resounding questions that deal with what supposedly happened with an overwhelming truthfulness.”
The expert believes that an opportunity has been missed by Europe to convey “a clear message to the thieves who have spent years destroying the history of those shipwrecks from the modern era all over the world.”
Odyssey Marine Exploration never had any interest in the Spanish frigate beyond the cargo of silver and gold that it was carrying. That was made clear by the destruction caused by the company in the archeological area where the remains of the 275 people killed in the attack in 1804 lay. “When an archeological site is plundered, it is destroyed forever,” states Noriega.
After the site was looted, ARQUA led a scientific excavation that was carried out in three campaigns – from 2015 to 2017 – in which the remains of the shipwreck were documented and the items that the treasure hunters left behind were removed. These included cannon, cutlery and other everyday objects from life on board. The expedition also achieved the challenge of descending 1,130 meters underwater, the maximum depth achieved until that point during a subaquatic arqueological mission by a European country.
While the damage done to a historical site such as the Mercedes shipwreck will not result in a trial or convictions, Núñez believes that the consequences of the process “were positive, from a legal and global point of view.” Noriega goes even further: “Spain and its coasts are, today, possibly the best protected and safest in the world with regard to the protection of cultural heritage against looting.”
Since the Odyssey case, the classification of offenses against historical heritage in Spain has improved, new archeological maps have been created, there is better coordination between administrations, and there is greater social awareness about this kind of offense. It was precisely these weaknesses that the treasure-hunting company Odyssey made use of to make off with the coins. In fact, the activity has presumably lost its appeal not just in Spain but also elsewhere, given that the American company has since abandoned its treasure-hunting activities and is now focusing on underground mining.
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