The National Security Service (NSS) also confirmed the arrest in Armenia of another Armenian man whom Georgian investigators have identified as the source of the seized uranium.
The Georgian government announced the arrests 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 each. 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.
Russia -- Uranium dioxide fuel pellets produced by the Novosibirsk Chemical Concentrate Works, Novosibirsk, 17Aug2006
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 Armenian successor to the Soviet KGB 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.