Russia jails mystery ship hijackers for up to 12 years
A Russian court on Thursday handed jail terms of up to 12 years to six hijackers of the Arctic Sea ship whose mysterious disappearance with a suspected illicit cargo sparked global concern in 2009.
The court in the northern city of Arkhangelsk handed jail terms of between seven to 12 years to the six men -- a Russian, a Latvian, an Estonian, and three stateless men.
Two other pirates are already serving five and seven year sentences and the prosecution said it was satisfied that all eight men were now safely behind bars.
"On the whole, the position of the court corresponds with our own," chief prosecutor Dmitry Smirnov was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.
The Russian-crewed but Maltese-flagged vessel suddenly vanished in July 2009 in the middle of one of the world's busiest trade waterways.
A massive international search operation was launched for the ship amid speculation that it could have been carrying an illicit cargo such as missiles or possibly even nuclear material destined for Iran.
Investigators said the ship had been seized by masked pirates near the coast of Sweden. It was recaptured by Russian warships in August 2009 and only its listed cargo of timber was found on board.
The hijackers were flown to Moscow aboard massive Russian planes before being put on trial on charges of piracy and kidnapping in a case that was later transferred to Arkhangelsk.
Russia has always insisted nothing suspicious was found on board the ship and strongly denied reports that it was carrying advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran.
Coincidentally the sentences were announced just as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was making an official visit to Moscow. Netanyahu had made a secret visit to Russia in 2009, at the peak of the speculation about the ship.
That trip coincided with a report in the Sunday Times alleging that Israel had learned that the ship had been loaded with weapons in a Baltic port by former military officers who had links to organised crime.
The report further suggested that Israel's Mossad intelligence and special operations service set up the hijacking in order to stop the shipment without causing diplomatic embarrassment to Moscow. Israel denied the report.
Some military analysts said at the time that the ship was simply not large enough to carry S-300 missile components to Iran and suggested that it may have been carrying smaller weapons secretly destined for either the Islamic Hamas or Hezbollah movements.
© 2011 AFP