Federal prosecutors charge Japanese Yakuza leader in nuclear material trafficking conspiracy

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U.S. prosecutors have charged a man identified as a leader of the Japanese organized crime syndicate Yakuza with conspiring to traffic nuclear materials from Myanmar to other countries, according to a superseding indictment announced Wednesday.

Authorities said they brought the charges against Takeshi Ebisawa after he and other associates in Thailand allegedly showed samples of nuclear material to an undercover Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent posing as a narcotics and weapons trafficker.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) said in a press release that the U.S. worked with Thai authorities to seize the nuclear samples, which were subsequently transferred to U.S. law enforcement custody.

A U.S. nuclear forensic lab confirmed the samples contained uranium and weapons-grade plutonium, according to the DOJ.

Federal prosecutors stressed the significance of the charges against a leader of the Yakuza, a crime syndicate that operates in multiple countries around the world.

“Ebisawa’s criminal activities have included large-scale narcotics and weapons trafficking, and his international criminal network extends through Asia, Europe, and the United States, among other places,” the indictment states.

U.S. Attorney Damian Williams for the Southern District of New York said in a statement it’s “impossible to overstate the seriousness of the conduct alleged in today’s Indictment.”

“As alleged, Takeshi Ebisawa brazenly trafficked material containing uranium and weapons-grade plutonium from Burma to other countries. He allegedly did so while believing that the material was going to be used in the development of a nuclear weapons program, and the weapons-grade plutonium he trafficked, if produced in sufficient quantities, could have been used for that purpose,” Williams said.

“Even as he allegedly attempted to sell nuclear materials, Ebisawa also negotiated for the purchase of deadly weapons, including surface-to-air missiles,” Williams stated.

According to the indictment, the undercover DEA agent agreed to broker the sale of the nuclear materials from Ebisawa to an associate posing as an Iranian general.

Ebisawa has been charged along with another defendant who was also previously accused of international narcotics trafficking and firearm offenses in 2022. The pair will be arraigned before a judge Thursday afternoon.

DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said the defendants allegedly offered the nuclear material “fully expecting that Iran would use it for nuclear weapons.”

“This is an extraordinary example of the depravity of drug traffickers who operate with total disregard for human life,” Milgram said in a statement.

Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen similarly warned of the potential danger if the nuclear material had actually been sold.

Olsen said Ebisawa was allegedly conspiring to sell the nuclear material from Myanmar “and to purchase military weaponry on behalf of an armed insurgent group.”

“It is chilling to imagine the consequences had these efforts succeeded, and the Justice Department will hold accountable those who traffic in these materials and threaten U.S. national security and international stability,” Olsen said.

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