Heavy metal in Moldova: Dangerous traffic

Almost twenty cases of trafficking in radioactive materials and heavy metals with impressive seized quantities were registered on the European Eastern border in Republic of Moldova. Dangerous materials heavily wanted on the black market come from Russia and are stored in Transnistria – a break away region o Moldova. Final destination: terrorist groups in different countries.

Meanwhile in Chisinau, country’s capital city, the Nuclear Regulating Agency has an uncertain future, the courts denies access to their files and indicted traffickers, some members of transnational criminal groups, receives symbolic sentences, are easily pardoned or flee the country.

Media is hysterical every time law enforcement agencies announce seizure of uranium, mercury and other dangerous materials. Experts praise the authority on TV talk-shows, common citizen in the kitchen. It is believed that apprehending criminals equals their neutralizing. Therefore in short time the audience’s attention is captured by other topics. Thus the cases on heavy metals and radioactive materials go cold. The more spectacular the arrest, the more merciful sentence shows judicial practice.

Legend seizures

June 27th 2011 was one of those days which start anonymously yet entered in history. Law enforcement agencies organized a Hollywood arrest in front of a Chisinau night-club. The news rapidly cross the world and became headline in New York Times, CNN or BBC. A criminal group intended to sell ten kilograms of uranium and a bomb blueprint to a Sudanese for 320 million euros. The bomb aimed to contaminate vast areas.

Five individuals were arrested on the spot with only three ended on a defendant bench. Two of them were finally sentenced to prison after a three years trial. They were the couriers Galina Agheenco and Teodor Chetrus who received three and five years. In 2015 Chetrus asked for parole and in 2016 he draw the police attention due to his alleged involvement in uranium smuggling attempt.

Galina’s husband Alexandr Agheenco a.k.a ”The Colonel” was not convicted. The Moldavian authorities said he allegedly was the head of the criminal gang and announce Agheenco became a wanted person included on Interpol most wanted persons list. Yet, on Interpol website his name is not mentioned and Agheenco a fugitive for seven years now is not to be found.

The 2011 case is just one of the many illegal trading in radioactive materials registered in republic of Moldova in the last years. In 2010 the police arrested three individuals, among them a former policeman, for their try to sell 1,8 kg of highly enriched uranium. In December 2014 the authorities announced the seizure of 200 grams of uranium transported by train from Russian federation. In 2016 another announcement on uranium seizure was made: “ in value of 210.000 USD” but no further details was given.

Kilograms of uranium lost

The 320 million euro case was given the generic name of “Uranium 2011”. The fact that only small fishes were convicted in this case draws the US authorities’ attention. A US Senate Committee for Foreign Affairs report presented in Washington shows the criminal network boss who owns both Moldavian and Russian citizenship fled to Russia from Transnistria a self-declared state and break away region of Moldova. According to the report he lives in Russia as other suspects do and this could be the logic behind creating artificial separatist areas by Kremlin.

Moreover, it is highly alarming the fact that from the total of then kilograms the criminals said they have only ten grams were seized by the police. This small quantity was the sample sent to would-be buyer to check the Uranium quality. The rest of quantity and the mastermind behind the transaction were not to be found. Constantin Malic the Moldavian undercover police officer trained by FBI who worked on the case said the authorities lost a huge opportunity to make the world a safer place. “They only create a mise-en-scene for the media with that arrest”.

The illegal traders were said they had plutonium and this business is not a question of money. Their telephones were tapped and from the conversation, images and documents in the file it became obvious the traffickers would have sold the product brought from Russia only to a buyer who would use it to manufacture a bomb of mass destruction against the United States of America.

Symbolic sentence and pardons

Ionel Balan the deputy director of Nuclear Regulating Agency in Moldova said the Russian origin of radioactive materials on the Moldavian market is not a conspiracy. Balan explain the origin of such a product is easy to trace as its particularities shows specifically the technology which was used to re-process the material. “For instance Mayak plant in Russia has a technology, another plant – other technology”.

Mercury is also coming from Transnistria a region where Republic of Moldova have no control over. At least 22 kilograms of mercury were confiscated by Moldavian authorities in 2014, 82 kilograms in 2015 and over 90 kilograms in 2016. These quantities came from smuggling but experts who wanted to remain anonymous said this is just the peak of the iceberg as mercury smuggling in Eastern Europe is flourishing.

Mercury circulation is restricted by the law and yet the smugglers receive symbolic sentences. One smuggler was fined with 3.000 MLD, cca. 145 euro, after policemen found in his house 886 grams of mercury. He paid half of the fine based on law provisions. The same amount in fine was given to an engineer who tried to sell two vials full of mercury for 2.000 euro. In 2016 the Moldavian media draw attention over a transaction of four kilograms of mercury for 9000 euros. The seller received three years probation.

By contrast, in early 2017 the judges convicted a retired man to two years in prison. He kept at his home for 30 years a recipient full of mercury he brought from Russia. A would-be buyer notified the authorities after the old man refused to sell it and was pardon for his part in the transaction. Six individuals serve their time in Moldavian prisons for illegal owning, transportation and smuggling of heavy metals and radioactive materials.

The above mention stories are just attempts of trafficking in mercury. A deep look on the court files shows these people actions can barely fit into the Moldavian law enforcement authorities’ successes of “dismemberment of specialized criminal groups”. The court decisions in these cases are difficult to be found. With rare exceptions the decision is publicly made not without classifying all the people’s name involved in the trial: defendant, prosecutor, court clerk, judge, and lawyer. We asked for free access to all the cases and with few exceptions this was granted.

Uncertain future for Nuclear Regulating Agency

Moldova has a strategic position for the traffickers of Russian originated Uranium as it easy to reach Middle East and Balkan countries from here. There are four ingredients for a smuggling recipe: Moldavia geographical position, infrastructure which turns Moldova into a transit country, poverty which encourage people to search for an alternative source of income and existence of the break away region of Transnistria.

The Agency functions under difficult conditions. In 2015 report the Agency draw attention on the misuse of the donated equipment for identifying nuclear and radioactive materials. The equipment had no place to be store in as the Government wouldn’t offer the Agency a suitable place to maintain it in full functioning capacity. United Nation donated a mobile laboratory and the European Commission a high sensitivity spectrometer.

According to a 2017 Governmental decision the Agency would loose its control over the nuclear and radiologic activities. Moldavian Government aim to reduce the number of country’s controlling bodies. “These controls will be performed by the Ecological Inspectorate which does not have this capacity. Even if the number of controlling bodies would be reduced the actual number of inspections is the same”, said Ionel Balan, the Agency deputy director.

This article was developed within the “Overcoming media’s stereotypes through cross border co-operation” coordinated by the Romanian Centre for Investigative Journalism and  supported by The Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation – A Project of the German Marshall Fund.

Opinions expressed in this material do not necessarily represent those of the Black Sea Trust, the German Marshall Fund, or its partners.