Arms dealer gets 3 years

Man tried to sell weapons to U.S. agents in sting

December 15, 2007|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,Sun reporter

A federal judge in Baltimore yesterday brushed aside prosecutors' calls to impose a hefty prison sentence on an Indonesian arms dealer who attempted to send almost $1 million worth of American military-class weapons to a Sri Lankan rebel group.

U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake instead imposed a prison term of slightly more than three years for Haji Subandi, describing the recommended guidelines calculated for the case - a prison term between 46 and 57 months - as "somewhat higher than necessary."

Prosecutors had asked for a prison term at the high end of the guidelines, calling Subandi a principal figure in the arms conspiracy. Blake disagreed, finding that he played a minor role, compared with his co-defendants.

During the two-hour sentencing, two contrasting portraits emerged of Subandi, who found himself involved in an elaborate sting operation last year designed by federal agents in Maryland.

Subandi, who had an initial role in the negotiations over the restricted weapons, but bailed out early over a money dispute, was still "without conscience," in the words of Assistant U.S. Attorney James Warwick. He pleaded guilty in March.

As part of the sting operation, Subandi tried to acquire restricted night-vision goggles to sell to the Indonesian army, as well as machine guns and other American military weapons to offer to the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, court papers show.

He even inquired about obtaining helicopters to sell to the Iranian air force, according to Warwick.

But, according to Subandi's lawyer, the 70-year-old Indonesian national was an arms broker by happenstance, trying to cash in on a first-time deal without success. The Tamil Tigers, he added, were not the terroristic equivalent of al-Qaida.

"He is a deeply honorable man," assistant federal public defender Joseph Evans said.

Customs agents have said that combating the illegal export of military technology is among the highest priorities of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Prosecutors in New York announced charges last week against two men who are accused of trying to smuggle military equipment out of the United States to Taiwan. The shipment reportedly was to have included infrared laser aiming devices and thermal weapons sights.

According to court documents, in mid-2006, Subandi and a former Indonesian general, Erick Wotulo, conspired with others to export state-of-the-art firearms, machine guns and ammunition, surface-to-air missiles, night-vision goggles and other military materials. The restricted military hardware was supposed to be bound to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, known as the Tamil Tigers, a rebel group operating within Sri Lanka.

Investigators said they set up their operation in 2004, when Subandi contacted an undercover customs agent about acquiring arms for the Tamil Tigers.

The Tamil Tigers have conducted a long, violent struggle - including the use of suicide bombings - against the Sri Lankan government to establish a separate Tamil state. The State Department labeled the Tamil Tigers as a foreign terrorist organization in 1997. The paramilitary organization cannot legally raise money or buy sensitive military equipment in the United States. But experts said the Sri Lankan rebels have skirted the ban by seeking out arms in other countries.

Subandi sent a list of 53 military weapons, including sniper rifles, machine guns and grenade launchers that he wanted to acquire for the Tamil Tigers.

On June 7, 2006, Subandi e-mailed the investigators' undercover business that Tamil Tigers is a terrorist organization and is "sealed off by the US Government and the EU countries as terrorist."

The next month, Subandi's associate, Haniffa Bin Osman, met with undercover agents in Baltimore to inspect some of the weapons. Osman told agents that the arms requested were for the Tamil Tigers, and Osman knew the delivery would be illegal, according to court papers. Osman told agents that a subsequent order could be worth as much as $15 million, prosecutors said.

On July 28, Osman test-fired several of the weapons, including machine guns, at a Harford County police range, according to the indictment.

Subandi was arrested on Sept. 28, 2006.

Osman, 56, of Singapore, and Wotulo, 59, of Indonesia, were also charged. They both pleaded guilty to conspiracy to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization and money laundering and face up to 20 years in prison for money laundering. Sentencing is scheduled for early next year.

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