By Patrick Markey
Federal prosecutors have set an early September trial date for the four Irish nationals indicted in the alleged Florida gun-smuggling ring just a month after they were arrested on weapons and conspiracy charges, officials said.
The decision to set a provisional trial date for Sept. 13 comes after a fourth suspect was arraigned in a Miami federal court and prosecutors interviewed a man they believe is a witness in a scheme to mail illegal firearms to Ireland.
Martin Mullan, a 29-year-old Belfast native, was formally arraigned in Fort Lauderdale last Thursday, a day before Miami prosecutors deposed Meir Rappaport, the estranged husband of one of the other defendants. The deposition, the first stage in a preparation for a trial, was closed to the public.
Rappaport had been held as a material witness to the case, but that complaint has been dismissed, a spokeswoman for the Miami U.S. Attorney’s office said. Although prosecutors spent Friday questioning Rappaport over his knowledge of the alleged gun-running operation, Mullan’s attorney said the witness had no knowledge of his client.
Daniel McElhatton, who was at the deposition, said Rappaport appeared to have no knowledge about the weapons or a plan to post them abroad.
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The attorney also said he was concerned about why authorities continued to keep Mullan in special housing unit in the Federal Correction Center in Florida. Prosecutors had said they were keeping Mullan under 23-hour lock-up because they had initially not known who he was, McElhatton said.
The other suspects — Siobhan Browne, Anthony Smyth and Conor Claxton — pleaded not guilty at their arraignments earlier in August and are also being held without bail.
Prosecutors said the group tried to send handguns, shotguns and ammunition through the U.S. mail to Ireland and Northern Ireland, using packages marked with labels for toys and household goods.
British and Irish authorities have intercepted dozens of weapons, mainly high-powered handguns, and ammunition in parcels mailed from the US. Prosecutors have said they have linked a number of the weapons to evidence taken from one or more of the defendants.
Federal agents arrested Browne, Claxton and Browne’s companion, Smyth, in Fort Lauderdale on July 26. Mullan was arrested in Philadelphia on the same day.
During an interview with federal agents, Claxton allegedly told the FBI he was on a weapons-procurement mission for the Provisional IRA, although his attorney denies Claxton made that comment. With the Good Friday peace agreement under review, allegations of republican gun smuggling have sparked concerns over a renewed campaign of violence.