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DOJ charges Japanese Yakuza leader for allegedly attempting to traffic nuclear materials

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(NEW YORK) — The Justice Department unsealed new charges against a leader of the notorious Japanese Yakuza gang who they accuse of attempting to traffic weapons-grade nuclear materials from Burma to other countries, according to a newly announced superseding indictment.

Prosecutors in Manhattan say that beginning in early 2020, Takeshi Ebisawa conspired to transport material containing uranium and weapons-grade plutonium believing it could be used by countries like Iran in the development of their nuclear-weapons program.

“It is chilling to imagine the consequences had these efforts succeeded,” Assistant Attorney General Matt Olsen said in a statement announcing the charges.

The 60-year-old Japanese national and another co-defendant had already been charged in April 2022 with narcotics trafficking offenses. Ebisawa and his co-defendant were arrested in Manhattan on those charges with a U.S. judge in New York ordering both men detained. Both men pleaded not guilty.

According to their superseding indictment, Ebisawa told two undercover agents in early 2020 he had access to a “large quantity” of nuclear materials he wished to sell, and sent a series of photos of rocky substances next to Geiger counters that measured radiation levels.

One of the undercover agents told Ebisawa they had an interested buyer who they claimed was an Iranian general.

“They don’t need it for energy, Iranian government need it for nuclear weapons,” the undercover agent told Ebisawa, according to the indictment.

“I think so and I hope so,” Ebisawa allegedly responded.

Ebisawa further engaged with the undercover agent as he expressed an interest in buying other military-grade weapons such as surface-to-air missiles that he said could be used by an insurgent group inside Burma.

The arrangement resulted in a swap of sorts, with unnamed co-conspirators allegedly supporting Ebisawa telling the undercover they “had available more than 2,000 kilograms of Thorium-232 and more than 100 kilograms of uranium” – which the co-conspirators said “could produce as much as five tons of nuclear materials in Burma.”

In a meeting arranged by Ebisawa with the undercover agents in Southeast Asia, one of Ebisawa’s co-conspirators brought the undercover into a hotel room and allegedly showed him two plastic containers with samples of the nuclear materials. Thai authorities then assisted in the seizure of the materials which were handed over to U.S. law enforcement, which subsequently tested the samples and confirmed they contained uranium, thorium and plutonium.

“As alleged, the defendants in this case trafficked in drugs, weapons, and nuclear material – going so far as to offer uranium and weapons-grade plutonium fully expecting that Iran would use it for nuclear weapons,” Anne Milgram, administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration said. “This is an extraordinary example of the depravity of drug traffickers who operate with total disregard for human life.”

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