The world's first trial of an alleged member of the A.Q. Khan global nuclear mafia opens in Mannheim Friday. It draws unwelcome attention to German firms' roles in the illegal export of nuclear technology.
Plutonium tablets at a nuclear facility in Germany -- a lucrative export?
A global black market for nuclear weapons, a shadowy network of masterminds and middlemen spanning continents and dictators ready to pay billions to get the bomb. It may sound like the plot for a racy thriller, but it's the very real backdrop to a trial that opened on Friday in Mannheim, where a German engineer and businessman has been charged with violating Germany's War Weapons Control Act and Foreign Trade Act.
Abdul Qadeer Khan also known as the father of the Pakistani nuclear bomb
The defendant, Gotthard Lerch, 63, is the first alleged member of the global nuclear mafia led by discredited Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan to go on trial.
The case relates to Lerch's role in 2000 in supplying Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi with centrifuges, manuals and control systems to construct a nuclear weapon. According to the Mannheim district attorney's office, Lerch received 55 million marks (28 million euros or $34 million) for his services for a total profit of some 25 million marks.
"Wal-Mart of black-market proliferation"
The information first came to light when a German ship was intercepted in October 2003 carrying a cargo of containers filled with nuclear weapons technology headed for Libya.
Gadhafi unexpectedly spilled the beans on the nuclear mafia in 2003
The seizure prompted a nervous Gadhafi to disclose the names of all those who had supplied Tripoli with material and expertise for its nuclear program. That in turn led to the unraveling of Khan's elaborately-built global arms-dealer bazaar and to the emergence of details of how it peddled nuclear technology to regimes in Iran, North Korea and Libya.
Khan, also known as the "father of the Pakistani nuclear bomb," had to publicly apologize to the Pakistani people in early 2004 and has been placed under house arrest.
Ever since, probes and arrests in several countries in Asia, South Africa and Europe have brought authorities closer to understanding what Mohammed ElBaradei, head of the UN nuclear watchdog IAEA, has called "a veritable Wal-Mart of black-market proliferation."
Unwelcome spotlight on murky dealings
Though Germany remains the first place in which proceedings have been formally opened to call the Khan nuclear network to account, there's no denying that the trial once again shines an unwelcome spotlight on the country's role at the center of an illegal nuclear smuggling case.
Pakistan's Hatf III missile lifted off successfully in 2002
Along with middlemen and firms in several European countries, German companies and individuals have fed equipment, materials and knowledge to nuclear programs in Pakistan, North Korea and other aspiring nuclear nations since the 1980s.
Gotthard Lerch, who goes on trial on Friday, was investigated extensively by German authorities in the 1980s for the misappropriation of blueprints at a joint British, German and Dutch uranium enrichment facility in the Netherlands. That was apparently also when he came into contact with Abdul Qadeer Khan. Lerch, however, was never convicted.
Erich Schmidt-Eenboom, a writer and expert on intelligence agencies said there were two primary reasons for Germany to be involved.
"Firstly, Germany is a country of hi-tech and cutting-edge technology of the kind that's required for uranium enrichment and the like and, secondly, it's an export-oriented country," Schmidt-Eenboom said. "Add that up and it's not surprising to find firms involved in illegal nuclear exports," he said, adding: "There are always going to be black sheep who are only interested in making hefty profits."
Paucity of funds the problem
At the same time some believe that the current problem of illegal weapons exports in Germany isn't a question of weak export control laws but rather one of resources.
Mark Hibbs, Europe and Asia editor of Nucleonics Week journal said one tactic used by European firms wanting to illegally export nuclear technology in the past was to use the widely differing EU jurisdictions to disguise the origin of equipment.
"But in the late 1980s, the German government took a leading role in making major advances in export control laws and coordinating and harmonizing its rules with EU laws," Hibbs said. "Today the problem is that export control authorities don't have sufficient resources -- and that includes logistics, money, personnell -- to detect smuggling operations. That's taken advantage of by countries wanting to import technology for their nuclear programs, who try to outwit the system."
New details on Iran?
Despite the uncomfortable attention that the case draws to Germany, experts agree that the significance of Friday's trial can hardly be overstated.
"The trial is hugely important in strengthening international attention on the problem of illegal proliferation," said Götz Neuneck of the Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg.
Iran's Isfahan uranium conversion facility
He added that the timing of the trial took on added significance in light of the international community's ongoing conflict with Iran over its nuclear program. "There are lots of unanswered questions in IAEA reports on Iran," said Neuneck, adding that it was well known that the Khan network had supplied Teheran with bits of nuclear technology in the 1980s, including high-tech centrifuges.
"It would be very good for international non-proliferation if the trial were to provide more details and shine more light on dark corners."