Caraballo said the crew members, while under armed guard, were enjoying conditions that were “10 times better than where they were.”
“They are quite comfortable,” Caraballo said. “They’ve been given clean clothing, food, cigarettes to smoke. . . . They have a television. They can play soccer each afternoon.”
They live in air-conditioned quarters, a physician attends to them and a telephone is available for them to communicate with the North Korean Embassy in Havana, he said. Panama doesn’t have diplomatic relations with North Korea.
While the ship’s crew and captain have offered statements through Korean translators brought in from Mexico, they’ve refused to sign the depositions, Caraballo said.
It hasn’t been decided what will happen to the weaponry that was aboard the ship.
Panama is treading lightly in the case, wary of angering Cuba, which Nunez Fabrega said was “one of the biggest customers of the free zone” in Colon, where it buys abundant goods as a consequence of the five-decade-old U.S. embargo on the island. A ship travels weekly from Colon to Havana to supply Cuba’s tourist hotels.
Caraballo, a drug prosecutor who was summoned to handle the seized ship because initial reports said it was carrying narcotics, said the captain had affirmed that he knew containers were in the hold but “didn’t know what was in the containers.”
The North Koreans have been charged with arms trafficking, which could carry up to a 12-year term, Caraballo said.
But Nunez Fabrega said Panama was eager for the crew and ship to be on their way once North Korea settles a fine of up to $1 million imposed by the Panama Canal Authority for endangering the waterway by transporting undeclared weaponry.
“We have no interest in keeping that boat here,” Nunez Fabrega said, noting that it’s the largest freighter in North Korea’s merchant fleet.
As for the seized sugar, it’s being kept in silos in Penonome in central Panama’s Cocle province, Caraballo said. What will happen to it is unclear. “This sugar may last there another 10 months without it being damaged,” he said.