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Student suspected of illegally shipping military-grade night-vision camera to China

A FLIR Systems Inc. "Star Safire III" infrared night-vision camera identical to one that was shipped to China is seen at the Metropolitan Police Department headquarters in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, on Nov. 24, 2017. (Mainichi)

The Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) sent papers to prosecutors on Nov. 24 accusing a Chinese exchange student of illegally exporting an infrared night-vision camera to a firm in China.

    The Tokyo-based student, 22, is thought to have initially purchased the U.S.-made Star Safire III camera on an internet auction site. The camera had been removed from a Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism disaster response helicopter and put up for sale, even though it was supposed to be discarded.

    The case file alleges that the student placed a bid of 550,000 yen (about $4,900) for the camera -- which can also be used for military purposes -- via a major internet auction site in February 2016. In May 2016, the student apparently sold the device to a firm in China for about 2.5 million yen ($22,400), and shipped it to the company via Hong Kong without any of the required Japanese government permits.

    "I used the money for living costs and academic fees," the man was quoted as telling police. However, when asked who he sold the camera to, the student reportedly said, "I don't remember." Investigators also believe that he sent photos of the camera and its product number to the Chinese company.

    Police suspect that the camera was purchased by a firm that handles military equipment for the Chinese market, and then resold within China. Although it is not known who the camera was resold to, the MPD's Public Security Bureau thinks it may have been purchased by the People's Liberation Army or some other military-related organization.

    Initially, the night-vision camera was attached to a transport ministry helicopter imported from the U.S. in 2006. In September 2015, the ministry apparently contracted Mitsubishi Electric Corp. to replace the camera and dispose of the old one. After the older camera was removed, a subcontractor sold it to another entity. The camera was apparently resold several times by different vendors before being put up on the auction site.

    The Star Safire III camera is manufactured by Oregon-based thermal imaging equipment firm FLIR Systems Inc. It was used in U.S. military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq and can capture images within a range of about 3 kilometers, as well as make out buildings and terrain at night. A new one costs at least 50 million yen (about $448,000), and apparently no Star Safire III camera has ever been exported from the U.S. to China.

    Given that the camera can be used for military purposes, it is necessary to obtain a U.S. trading license to import or export it based on International Traffic in Arms Regulations. In addition, the Star Safire III is on a list of devices under the Foreign Exchange and Foreign Trade Act that require an export permit issued by the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry. However, there is no law regulating sales of the camera if putting one up for auction.

    Upon discovering that the camera had been placed on an auction site, in June the transport ministry issued a two-week ban on Mitsubishi Electric bidding on government contracts. Meanwhile, the MPD has sent papers on the subcontractor on suspicion of falsely reporting to Mitsubishi Electric that it had disposed of the camera.

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