Tests by Georgian authorities later revealed that one lead cylinder held cesium-137, two strontium-90, and the fourth spent material that was hard to identify. All are useful for making a dirty bomb, although the material in the cylinders alone was not enough to cause mass casualties, according to data provided by Georgian nuclear regulatory authorities.
The arrested Turks denied knowing they were negotiating for radioactive substances. They claimed to be musical instrument experts, who had come to Batumi seeking to buy violins.
A skeptical interrogator asked them if they were familiar with the famed instrument maker Stradivarius.
One man said he had never heard of him.
The two Turks and the seller, Oniani, were convicted in September in a Georgian court, according to officials, and sentenced to six years in prison each.
The Georgian smuggling cases suggest that the trade in radioactive materials is driven at least in part by poverty and the lingering legacy of Soviet corruption in a hardscrabble region. Georgian officials say that because of U.S. backed counter-smuggling efforts, organized crime groups seem to have concluded that the potential profit from trade in these materials doesn't justify the risk. But individuals sometimes conclude they can make a quick buck from radioactive material.
For instance, in one newly disclosed case last year, authorities arrested two Georgian men with firearms, TNT and a lethal quantity of cesium-137. One was a former Soviet officer in an army logistics unit, who told police that at the end of his service in the early 90s, he had made a second career stealing from the military.
"He openly said: 'I was a logistics officer and my second duty was to steal everything possible," according to Pavlenishvili.
The man kept the cesium for years before he and a relative tried to sell it last year to a Georgian undercover officer. He did not try to sell the weapons or explosives.
Poverty and corruption also appear to have played into three smuggling incidents in 2003, 2006 and 2010 that involved bomb-grade highly enriched uranium.
In 2003, an Armenian man, Garik Dadaian, was arrested when he set off a radiation detector provided by an American program at a checkpoint on the Armenian-Georgian border. Days later, the man was released and returned to Armenia under murky circumstances.
Dadaian's name resurfaced in 2010 on a bank transfer slip in the pocket of the two smugglers arrested with highly enriched uranium. The men had obtained the material from Dadaian and were offering it as a sample of a larger quantity. Police say forensic analysis suggests the uranium may have come from the same batch seized in 2003.
Russian investigators suspected Dadaian got the nuclear fuel from a manufacturing plant in Novosibirsk, Russia, where several disappearances of material have been documented. Pavlenishvili said Dadaian bribed prosecutors to win his release and take some of the uranium.
The two smugglers in the 2010 case were Sumbat Tonoyan, a dairy farmer who went bankrupt, and Hrant Ohanian, a former physicist at a nuclear research facility in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. The AP interviewed both at a prison about 25 miles (40 kilometers) outside Tbilisi, where they are serving sentences of 13 and 14 years.
In separate interviews, each man blamed the other for the idea of smuggling uranium, and talked of financial hardship. Ohanian said his daughter needed urgent medical care that he couldn't afford, and Tonoyan said a bank had seized his house after his dairy factory collapsed.
"I didn't have a job and I couldn't pay the bank," he said in Russian through an interpreter.
The men also claimed they believed the material they were selling was to be used for scientific work, not nefarious purposes. Ohanian said a Georgian contact, who was also arrested, told him relations with Moscow were so bad that Georgian scientists could not get the uranium they needed from Russia on the open market.