Engineer convicted over nuclear smuggling ring
05 September 2007, Johannesburg (dpa) - One year after the first trial of a suspected member of an international nuclear smuggling network spanning three continents ended in failure in Germany a follow-up trial in South Africa Tuesday produced surprising results.
05 September 2007
Johannesburg (dpa) - One year after the first trial of a suspected member of an international nuclear smuggling network spanning three continents ended in failure in Germany a follow-up trial in South Africa Tuesday produced surprising results.
German-born engineer Gerhard Wisser, after striking a plea bargain with prosecutors that will see him spend three years under house arrest, finally admitted in Pretoria High Court to his involvement in attempts to supply parts for Libya's aborted nuclear weapons programme.
The conviction is the first of a member of the ring headed by the father of the Pakistani nuclear bomb, Abdul Qadeer Khan.
Wisser's guilty plea shot to pieces the tale he told since his arrest in Johannesburg in September 2004 and paves the way for the possible prosecution of other members of the network in Europe or Asia.
The 68-year-old engineer's account of events had always stretched credibility.
Despite having worked on South Africa's secret apartheid-era nuclear programme in the 1980s, when he was approached in 2000 by a nuclear industry contact about manufacturing a "compact pipework system" for an unnamed client, he'd said he hadn't batted an eyelid.
The client had paid him a handsome fee of 1 million euros (1.3 million dollars) to find a company in South Africa to manufacture the system.
On examining the plans Wisser and his employee Swiss-born engineer Daniel Geiges realized the drawings were for a uranium enrichment plant, but it never occurred to him that it could be for use in a nuclear weapons programme, Wisser previously claimed.
An old friend and fellow engineer with experience in the nuclear industry, Johan Meyer, of Tradefin Engineering near Johannesburg, was the recipient of the contract.
Wisser repeatedly claimed he did not suspect he was abetting Libya's nuclear programme until mid-2003 and that he believed he was working for Pakistan's nuclear energy programme.
The penny still did not drop when two Libyan engineers arrived in South Africa to inspect the plant in 2002.
Even after "the realization dawned" - when Johan Meyer received a payment from Libya in 2003 - Wisser did not immediately intervene to pull the plug on the plant.
It was only when Italian and US authorities intercepted a ship carrying parts for Libya's nuclear programme off the coast of Italy in October 2003, exposing Moamer Gaddafi's then atomic ambitions, that he gave the order to destroy it.
The order was given in a text message to Meyer urging him "to destroy the bird (plant) and all its feathers (project)" - an order Meyer, who later turned state witness, ignored.
When South African authorities raided Tradefin's premises near Johannesburg in September 2004 they found the bones of a two-storey uranium enrichment plant packed and ready for shipment.
The plant, shocked experts said, could have been used to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for several nuclear bombs a year.
Wisser's claims of ignorance over what was dubbed Khan's "nuclear supermarket" had, as one South African magistrate said, "lacked the ring of truth" from the start.
His company Krisch Engineering was specialized in vacuum technology and had already been rapped by German authorities in the 1980s for importing equipment for South Africa's nuclear programme in defiance of international sanctions.
On Tuesday Wisser decided against risking up to 15 years in prison by pleading guilty to seven charges of contravening the Non- Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction Act and the Nuclear Energy Act, and two counts of forgery.
He was sentenced to three years under house arrest and given a suspended jail sentence of 18 years.
The serious threat to world peace and potential of horrific loss of life posed by his activities were cited by the prosecution as aggravating factors in the case.
His agreement to cooperate with authorities in South Africa and abroad in the investigation of other players in the network appears to have been central to his lenient sentence.
In an interview in April Wisser claimed German authorities were anxious to secure his extradition in the hope that he could provide evidence against a German who has unsuccessfully been tried in connection with Khan's network: Gotthard Lerch.
The case against Lerch, who was accused of being a key coordinator of the network, was thrown out of court in Mannheim in July 2006 after the court found the state had withheld documents.
State prosecutor R C Macadam also cited Wisser's age and the prosecution's desire to avoid a potentially years-long trial in explaining the plea bargain, which also sees Wisser forfeit 6 million rands (800,000 dollars) in cash and over 2.8 million euros in overseas assets.
Meanwhile the trial of his co-accused, Daniel Geiges, who is seriously ill with cancer, has been postponed to September 21.
In Pakistan Abdul Qadeer Khan is still under house arrest after admitting publicly in 2004 to selling state nuclear secrets. No charges have been laid against him.
Subject: German news