Category: Archive

Fla. gunrunners sentenced

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Patrick Markey and Susan Falvella-Garraty

A Florida judge has sentenced three Irish men to federal prison for smuggling high-powered weapons to Ireland through the U.S. mail in what prosecutors portrayed as a well-executed IRA gun-running operation.

The sentencing comes amid fresh controversy after a prosecutor told a Belfast TV program that evidence linked the IRA’s highest ranks to the Florida gun-smuggling case.

After a testy five-week trial in April, the three men were convicted of purchasing and illegally shipping scores of handguns and ammunition from Fort Lauderdale.

But Conor Claxton, Martin Mullan and Anthony Smyth were cleared of the most controversial charges, conspiracy to commit murder and maim in Northern Ireland and providing material support to terrorists.

Claxton, an admitted IRA member who prosecutors called the operation’s ringleader, was sentenced to four years and eight months in federal prison. The two other men, Mullan and Smyth, both received prison sentences of three years.

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Handing down his decision yesterday, Judge Wilkie Ferguson said the men should have received longer prison terms but that he was bound by restrictive federal sentencing guidelines.

"If in a crack cocaine case a person can get a life sentence for possessing $400 worth of cocaine, this kind of offense ought to be a death penalty," Ferguson said.

Another defendant in the case, Dublin-born Siobhan Browne, was sentenced to 20-months in August after pleading guilty to conspiracy to illegally purchasing weapons.

The four defendants were arrested in July last year after federal investigators uncovered what they described as a complex plot to ship arms to the IRA. Handguns and ammunition, including 0.50 sniper rounds, were packed into parcels disguised with toys and electronic equipment.

The trial stirred controversy in Northern Ireland as Unionists politicians questioned the validity of the IRA cease-fire. An FBI agent testified that Claxton, who is from Belfast, told investigators he worked for the Provisional IRA and that the weapons would be used against RUC officers and British Army.

The IRA said that it had not sanctioned the operation, but an Ulster Television program broadcast the day of the sentencing reopened the dispute.

IRA sanctioning?

During the "Insight" program, federal prosecutor Richard Scruggs tells an interviewer that evidence pointed to the IRA sanctioning the operation from the highest level up to the paramilitary organization’s Army Council.

Scruggs said arms were transferred to border areas of Ireland by individuals with previous IRA convictions, and prosecutors also traced money to West Belfast with deposits made by individuals connected to the Provisional movement.

"In terms of whether or not this matter is over, there’s still several lines of investigation that are still occurring. There were still additional weapons, and perhaps additional people that were involved," Scruggs said.

The prosecutors comments caused a stir in the halls of power on both sides of the Atlantic. In Stormont, Unionist leader David Trimble said time for decommissioning had been further constricted.

"We’re going to have to say to the republican movement very clearly, it’s time to fulfill your promises, because in light of the actions that you appear to have undertaken in the United States, there is now very little credibility in those promises," the UUP leader told UTV.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams quickly dismissed controversy over the Florida program.

"Don’t take this Florida situation, this Florida scam and blow it out of proportion. The IRA leadership has been solid, despite the difficulties within the broad IRA constituency," Adams said.

White House denial

The White House also moved to quash the ensuing controversy after a British newspaper reported that the U.S. consul in Belfast had called UTV to ask the television station to pull the program.

White House officials called reports that American Consul Jane Fort telephoned UTV about the "Insight" program "preposterous." Officials said the consul telephoned the station to ask that a FBI statement be added for balance.

"She did not call and ask that the program be canceled," said National Security Council spokesman Daniel Cruise.

U.S. federal officials also downplayed Scruggs’s comments about the IRA sanctioning the Florida gun-running operation.

"The FBI has not confirmed statements made during the recent criminal trial of Conor Claxton that his criminal activities were known or sanctioned by the highest levels of the IRA," a White House statement read.

After the Florida convictions U.S. federal authorities acknowledged that they had opened up further investigations. Miami officials said they were investigating other individuals based elsewhere in the United States, but would not disclose details.

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