Offloaded cargo is inspected by the National Customs Investigation Service (Finnish Customs)
HELSINKI — A preliminary report by Finland’s National Customs Investigation Service (NCIS) into the seizure of a shipment of Russian T-72 tank parts concludes the shipment lacked required documentation and violated Finnish and European Union rules governing the export and movement of defense materials.
The seizure was made at Helsinki port on Jan. 8. The report was forwarded to the State Prosecutor’s Office (SPO) for consideration of charges.
The NCIS report noted that the military cargo, which was being transported by the Helsinki-based Finnlines company, did not have a transit permit allowing it to be shipped through Finland, nor would such a permit have been granted due to an EU Council decision prohibiting the transport of military equipment and spare parts to Syria.
The T-72 parts, which remain impounded in Helsinki, were inspected by officials from Finland’s Ministry of Defense and officers from the Army’s Tank Command. The Finnish Army has used several versions of the T-72 tank. The last units had been decommissioned by 2005.
The preliminary investigation centered on the actions of 10 suspects, all Finnish citizens. Of these, charges are to be considered against three persons, all employees of Finnlines. The SPO is expected to conduct its own investigation in November. This will be based on the NCIS report’s findings. The SPO will then decide whether to advance the investigation or proceed with criminal charges.
“The tasks of the three suspects were directly related to organizing the transportation of the cargo,” said Petri Lounatmaa, the head of the NCIS’ anti-crime unit. Possible charges can be bought under Finland’s defense equipment export act, he said.
Finnlines has denied that either the company or any of its employees were involved in any illegalities or wrongdoing in the shipment of military parts to Syria.
The ship transporting the container, the M/S Finnsun, was impounded by the NCIS after it was unloaded and examined at Helsinki harbor’s Vuosaari port-dock in January.
“As a company, we have from the very outset provided every help and support to the customs authority to investigate this matter,” said Tapani Voionmaa, the head of Finnlines’ legal and insurance division. Neither the company nor any of its employees have broken any laws, said Voionmaa.
The NCIS moved to examine the Finnsun’s cargo after being alerted by customs authorities at the Port of Antwerp just after New Year. Dutch officials, who had found irregularities in the ship’s manifest and other documentation, ordered the ship to return to Finland.
The January seizure consisted of around 10 tons of T-72 tank spare parts. The ship’s manifest stated the end-destination as Syria. The NCIS’ investigation revealed that the container housing the T-72 tank spare parts was initially loaded in St. Petersburg and was being transited to Central Europe via Finland, and onwards to the port of Latakia in Syria.
“We are not talking about the most technologically advanced military products, but rather standard spare parts used during scheduled tank maintenance,” said Lounatmaa.
A British Virgin Islands-based company has been identified by the NCIS as the owner of the cargo.
“For operational reasons, as this is an ongoing investigation, we cannot reveal the identity of the consignor or consignee at this time,” Lounatmaa said.
Rosoboronexport, Russia’s state arms exporter, and the country’s Ministry of Defense both informed the NCIS that they had no knowledge of the T-72 tank parts shipment found on-board the Finnsun.
A Soviet-era second-generation main battle tank that entered production in 1970, the T-72 is widely used by Syrian government forces.
In December 2011, the NCIS impounded a shipment of US Patriot missiles being transited through Helsinki port. The subsequent investigation revealed that the shipment was part of a legal commercial trade contract between Germany and South Korea. The ship and its cargo were released by Finnish customs after additional documentation was provided by Germany’s Ministry of Defense.