By Patrick Markey
The four Irish nationals accused of plotting to ship weapons from Florida to Ireland have been arraigned on a second indictment that charges them with aiding terrorism and conspiring to commit murder in Northern Ireland.
Prosecutors in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., released the new indictment last week, just a fortnight before the gun-running trial was to scheduled start. On Monday, all four defendants pleaded not guilty to the new charges of providing material support to terrorists, conspiring to murder and maim individuals in Northern Ireland and other weapons offenses.
During Monday’s hearing, prosecutors and defense attorneys decided on April 24 as the final trial date. Prosecutors expect witnesses to fly from Britain, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic to testify in Florida and are still waiting on information from British and Irish police.
The defendants are currently being held without bail in Florida and if convicted on terrorism charges they face a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
The four, Conor Claxton, Siobhan Browne, Martin Mullan and Anthony Smyth, were arrested in Fort Lauderdale and Philadelphia in July last year after authorities unearthed what they alleged was an elaborate plot to buy and post handguns, shotguns and ammunition to Ireland.
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During questioning, Claxton allegedly told investigators he was working under orders from the IRA and that the weapons were to be used for assaults on RUC officers and British soldiers. Claxton’s attorney denied he made those remarks, but the allegations led to Unionist criticism over the status of the IRA cease-fire.
According to the indictment, the defendants also received funds wired from accounts in Belfast to purchase and mail the weapons to supporters in Ireland and the North.
"It clearly raises the stakes," said Daniel McElhatton, attorney for Mullan, when asked about the new charges. "The government will have to proven these allegations and we are prepared to fight these allegations."
According to the indictment, from January 1999 the defendants obtained more than 90 handguns and shotguns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, including .50-caliber armor-piercing ammunition.
The weapons were hidden inside packages marked as toys, stereos and computers before being shipped through the postal service from Fort Lauderdale, the indictment states.