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Uranium smuggler suspects plead guilty

By Mzia Kupunia
Tuesday, November 9
Foreign media outlets have reported new details of the highly enriched uranium (HEU) smuggling case in Georgia. The UK’s Guardian newspaper reported on Sunday that two Armenian citizens, Sumbat Tonoyan and Hrant Ohanyan pleaded guilty at a “secret trial” to smuggling HEU into Georgia last March by train from Yerevan to Tbilisi. “The trial has been conducted behind closed doors to protect the operational secrecy of Georgia’s counter-proliferation unit,” The Guardian quoted Georgian officials as saying “But investigators have given the Guardian an exclusive first-hand account of the case,” the Guardian wrote.

Information about the arrest of the suspected smugglers with a “small amount” of HEU was announced last April. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili made an announcement about the highly enriched uranium seizure at the nuclear security summit in Washington; however the president did not give any details of the case at that time.

According to The Guardian, the uranium sample that Sumbat Tonoyan and Hrant Ohanyan were peddling is thought to have been stolen several years ago. The newspaper cited US tests, which have allegedly confirmed that it was “89.4 % enriched, usable in a nuclear warhead”. Tonoyan and Ohanyan only had 18 grams of HEU, according to the British newspaper, however they had been told by their supplier in Armenia that “much more was available.”

Tonoyan and Ohanyan smuggled the HEU into Georgia by train in a cigarette box lined with lead to “fool radiation sensors at the border,” according to the Guardian. “Tonoyan, a 63-year-old who once ran a successful dairy business but gambled away his fortune, and Ohanyan, a 59-year-old scientist at the Yerevan Institute of Physics, had arranged to meet their buyer in a hotel in the Georgian capital on 11 March. They thought they were selling their 18g sample to a representative of an Islamist group as a precursor to a bigger consignment. But the buyer was an undercover police officer,” the newspaper reported on November 7.

Georgian officials have confirmed The Guardian’s reports. Head of the Analytical Department of the Georgian Interior Ministry, Shota Utiashvili said that the HEU smuggling case trial is close to its end. “The court hearings are almost over; all that remains is for sentencing to be announced. The process is closed, so I cannot specify when the last court session will be held,” the Interior Ministry spokesperson said. “The British press published information today, but it is not about any new case; this is the case about which President Saakashvili spoke at the nuclear security summit,” he added.

Meanwhile the Georgian Foreign Ministry said that that Georgia is “informed” on global security issues and is “taking an active role” in them. Speaking at Monday’s usual press briefing, the Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister, Nino Kalandadze said Georgia is “taking preventive measures and timely reporting information to all relevant international organisations.”

The Deputy Minister challenged the allegation of The Guardian that “the critical ingredient for making a nuclear warhead is available on the black market and is reasonably easy to smuggle past a ring of expensive US-funded radiation sensors along the borders of the former Soviet Union.” Kalandadze said that the only case of finding HEU in Georgia has happened last march. “However the fact that highly enriched uranium is easily available in Georgia, has not been confirmed,” she told journalists on November 8.

Sumbat Tonoyan and Hrant Ohanyan might be sentenced to about ten years in prison, according to Georgian officials.