Armenia, Georgia Foil Uranium Smuggling Ring

YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–The Armenian National Security Service (NSS) on Monday said that it has closely cooperated with Georgian law-enforcement authorities in their hitherto secret investigation into an alleged smuggling of highly-enriched uranium to Georgia that led to the arrest of two Armenian nationals.

The Georgian government announced the arrests back in April but did not divulge any details of the case until the two Armenians pleaded guilty during their secret trial late last week. Citing officials in Tbilisi, Western media have identified them as Smbat Tonoyan and Hrant Ohanian. The latter is a retired nuclear physicist.

According to the Georgian Interior Ministry, the suspects were arrested in Tbilisi last March with 18 grams (0.6 ounces) of uranium hidden in a cigarette pack which they tried to sell, for $1.5 million, to an undercover police agent posing as a Turkish Islamist radical. Ministry representatives say the uranium was nearly 90 percent enriched and useable in a nuclear warhead.

Both suspects are now facing ten years in prison. Reports from Tbilisi said on Monday that they have admitted to the accusations.

The trial is taking place in closed session, with neither the defendants, nor their lawyers made available to journalists. Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili told AFP news agency that the secrecy is needed to protect undercover police agents.

In Yerevan, meanwhile, the NSS said that Armenian and Georgian special services have been in “close cooperation” throughout the probe. In a short statement, the NSS said that cooperation led to the arrest in Armenia last April of Garik Dadayan, the man who is alleged to have provided the uranium sample to Tonoyan and Ohanian.

Dadayan was already arrested by Georgian border guards in 2003 while entering the country with 200 grams of highly-enriched uranium. He was subsequently tried by an Armenian court and sentenced to 2.5 years in prison. He reportedly served less than half of that sentence.

The NSS statement said that Dadayan was charged under an article of the Armenian Criminal Code that deals with nuclear material smuggling, suggesting that he will again be tried in Armenia. The charges carry between four and eight years’ imprisonment. It is not clear when he will go on trial.

Russian authorities reportedly told investigators of the 2003 case that Dadayan had traveled to Georgia from Novosibirsk, Russia, which is home to a nuclear fuel manufacturing plant. Several disappearances of material from that plant have been documented.

Ashot Chilingarian, the director of the Yerevan Physics Institute (YPI), insisted on Monday that the uranium seized by the Georgian authorities was not produced in Armenia, arguing that the country has no uranium enrichment facilities. He suggested that it was specifically designed for nuclear weapons.

Speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian service, Chilingarian also confirmed that Ohanian is a former YPI employee. He said the 59-year-old scientist worked at the institute’s cosmic radiation division from 1975-1995 and has maintained no ties with it since then.

Tonoyan, the other suspect, is said to be a former dairy firm owner who lost a fortune while gambling. Georgian officials say he repeatedly traveled to Turkey via Georgia before his arrest.

According to the Associated Press, they also say they have sent the seized material and its packaging to the U.S. for further forensic analysis and have reported the case to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). IAEA spokesman Ayhan Evrensel confirmed the Vienna-based agency is working with Georgia on the case.

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11 Comments

  1. Pingback: International News » Armenia, Georgia Foil Uranium Smuggling Ring | Asbarez Armenian News

  2. Daron said:

    “According to the Georgian Interior Ministry, the suspects were arrested in Tbilisi last March with 18 grams (0.6 ounces) of uranium hidden in a cigarette pack which they tried to sell, for $1.5 million, to an undercover police agent posing as a Turkish Islamist radical”. If this is true, they should be put to death. It is sad to know that Armenian citizens are conspiring to provide the Islamists with nuclear material.

      • Mike said:

        The fact the smugglers were of Armenian origin is disgusting. However, not everything is clear in this story. Georgian president whats at all costs to discredit Russia and with its highly anti-Russian policies and somehow win sympathy and support of United States and West. CIA at the blessing of Georgian government has a free hand in Georgia, which lately has become the place to sell or buy nuclear materials. There is a bigger game going on, while these two greedy Armenians got trapped. How these smugglers obtained 18 gram of Uranium? Why did they try to sell it in Georgia and not in Armenia or Russia? We know that the possible purchaser of nuclear materials was an agent. Could the supplier have been an agent too?

      • Daron said:

        Anna,
        Your comment above sounds like a statement rather than a question. Apparently you are ignorant of the Georgians being involved in smuggling nuclear materials. Yet, you won’t miss an opportunity to point your clueless finger on Armenians. You also tend to ignore the friendly ties of Republic of Georgia with Azerbaijan and Turkey, which has allowed Chechen Islamists, Taliban and Al Qaida to establish sanctuaries and bases in Georgia to lunch their terrorist operations for years. Now, do you think that the Georgian Security Services or the Intelligence community were unaware of the Islamist activities that were conducted within their borders? I’m sure soon you will also blame the Armenian for traffic accidents in the Georgian Republic.

        WASHINGTON — Republic of Georgia authorities, aided by the CIA, set up a sting operation last summer that led to the arrest of a Russian man who tried to sell a small amount of nuclear bomb-grade uranium in a plastic bag in his jacket pocket, U.S. and Georgian officials said.
        Authorities say they do not know how the man acquired the nuclear material or if his claims of access to much larger quantities were true. He and three Georgian accomplices are in Georgian custody and not cooperating with investigators.
        http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/16795915/

        San Francisco Chronicle
        June 17, 2003
        Raid in Georgia triggers ‘dirty bomb’ fears
        Police seize radioactive materials
        Anna Badkhen, Chronicle Staff Writer
        Moscow — In a sign that the clandestine market in nuclear materials is thriving despite the war on terrorism, police in the former Soviet republic of Georgia seized two metal containers filled with radioactive material that could be used to make a so-called dirty bomb, Georgian authorities said Monday.
        The containers, which held cesium-137 and strontium-90, were discovered during a raid near the country’s capital, Tbilisi, on May 31, Russia’s Ria- Novosti news agency reported. Police also found a glass capsule containing Yprite, or mustard gas, Reuters reported. A chemical used in World War I, mustard gas causes blindness, blistering of the skin and lungs and, often, painful and slow death.
        http://www.cdi.org/russia/262-12.cfm

        American and Russian officials have charged that Georgia has lost effective control of the Pankisi Gorge, where thousands of Chechens have fled from the brutal Russian military occupation of Chechnya. They both assert that Georgian weakness has allowed hundreds of Chechen militants and dozens of fighters loyal to Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to use the region as a sanctuary and logistics base.
        http://www.wsws.org/articles/2002/mar2002/geor-m01.shtml

    • Susan said:

      I agree with you, what kind of Armenian will provide nuclear material to Turkish Islamist radical.

  3. Arthur Stepanyan said:

    The photo shows pellets for nuclear power plant fuel rods (TVEL), and the fuel-grade Uranium is enriched to much lower than 90%, which is considered HEU. i.e. weapons grade material. If the material came from Novosibirsk fuel plant it could not have been weapons-grade enrichment, not to mention that neither Russia nor USA use Uranium for weapons; both use Plutonium. But these are just technical details, and my sincere and heart-felt congratulations go to Armenian and Georgian security experts for catching these dangerous idiots!

  4. eddy said:

    I agree with Daron but for me tehre are many open quations… And how comes that the Georgian authorities started making anti Armenian propaganda by making doubtful headlines and ignoring the role of Armenian security forces? As if only the heroic Georgian authorities “Foil Uranium Smuggling Ring“and why did Armenian authorities allow the arrest of these Armenian citizens in Tbilisi and not on Armenian territory? Why were these two people allow to cross Georgian borders with 18 grams (0.6 ounces) of uranium? Maybe the 18 grams were smuggled/ brought by foreign secret service into Armenia?

  5. Anahid Keussdeyan said:

    What a nonsense. The Georgians are too eager to blame Armenians for every mishap. They know how to manipulate the international powers. I just cannot believe. It is very easy to plant stark lies. I know, there are corrupt Armenians, but people do not forget that since the times of Soviets Armenians are struggling in every sphere with the Georgians. Do not forget the very well kept secrets how they treat the Javakhk region. What a nonsense. They can justify saying that with the assistance of CIA they have caught these Armenians red handed. It is not difficult to trap someone. Ask these cowards, how many javakhk armenians are in prison accused blamed and imprisoned. Armenians have very ‘honest, loving, generous respectful neighbours that respect integrity’. What a blatant corrupt soul they have.

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