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Swiss destroys evidence in nuclear smuggling case

26 May 2008

BERN – The Swiss government destroyed sensitive evidence in a high-profile nuclear smuggling case linked to Libya’s now-abandoned effort to build an atomic bomb because of security reasons, Switzerland’s president said Friday.

The documents formed part of a criminal case against three members of a Swiss family of engineers accused of involvement in the nuclear smuggling ring of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the “father” of Pakistan’s atomic weapons program. Khan has admitted selling nuclear weapons technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea.

President Pascal Couchepin, speaking publicly on the matter for the first time, said federal prosecutors discovered that the information contained in the files was “explosive” for Switzerland’s security and foreign policies. The government in November ordered the files to be destroyed, but did not make the decision public at the time.

“There were detailed construction plans for nuclear weapons, for gas ultracentrifuges to enrich weapons-grade uranium as well as for guided missile delivery systems,” Couchepin told reporters in the Swiss capital.

The documents were destroyed under the observation of the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency, he said.

Couchepin, who holds Switzerland’s yearly rotating presidency, read out a prepared statement and declined to answer questions about the case.

Couchepin’s appearance followed a week of media reports that the files were secretly ordered destroyed by the government in 2007 after pressure from the United States, which was concerned that its efforts to clamp down on nuclear smuggling might be compromised.

The Basler Zeitung newspaper reported 17 May that the destruction of the evidence – some 100 looseleaf binders full – took place in December.

Couchepin’s statement said the decision was taken to prevent the documents getting “into the hands of a terrorist organisation or an unauthorised state.”

Zurich daily Tages-Anzeiger reported Friday that Urs Tinner, one of the three accused, was recruited by U.S. intelligence while he was part of Khan’s smuggling network.

The U.S. Embassy in Switzerland declined to discuss the matter.

Couchepin’s statement did not comment on the potential impact the destruction of evidence could have if the defendants are ever brought to trial, but implied only that the security and international policy risks were too great to permit its continued existence.

Zurich weekly SonntagsZeitung said in March that information provided by Tinner led to the 2003 seizure of the German-registered freighter “BBC China,” which was carrying components for a uranium enrichment plant from Dubai to Libya. The ship’s interception prompted Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to admit his country’s nuclear weapons plans and agree to abandon them.

Tinner, 43, has been in custody since 2004 while Swiss prosecutors prepare their case against him. His brother Marco also has been held in connection with the case, while their father, Friedrich Tinner, has since been released from detention.

All three are being investigated on suspicion of violating export laws on controlled goods and war materials. A trial date has not been set.

[AP / Expatica]