A South African court on Thursday charged two German men who live in the country with illegally exporting equipment used to enrich uranium needed to make nuclear weapons.
Were German businessmen helping Libya build one of these?
Thursday's double arraignments came one day after Gerhard Wisser, 66, and Daniel Geiges, 65, were arrested by authorities. The men are alleged to have been involved in an international nuclear smuggling network linked to Abdul Qadeer Khan, the founder of Pakistan’s nuclear program. Last week a South African businessman was arrested on related charges.
For Wisser, it was the second arrest in one month's time. Officials first arrested him in Germany just over two weeks ago after the federal prosecutor's office in Karlsruhe said he was suspected of helping Libya acquire atomic weapons technology in 2001. He was later released on bail and allowed to return to South Africa, where he has been a longtime resident.
Prosecutors believe Wisser served as the middleman in the operation, passing on illegal equipment to a network based in Dubai to supply Libya with gas centrifuge equipment used for uranium enrichment.
'Very serious' charges
Sally De Beer, spokeswoman for the National Police Commissioner, said the two had already appeared in court and that the charges are significant.
"The charges are very serious and there are international links and we've been working together closely with the national prosecution authority but at this stage we are collecting evidence," she said.
On Thursday, Wisser's lawyers said their client would fight all the charges against him. "We are pleading not guilty and we are going to fight it right till the end," Anand Choudree told reporters.
The arrest of the two men follows the withdrawal of similar charges against South African businessman Johan Meyer in Johannesburg on Wednesday. Meyer is understood to have turned state witness, but prosecutors have offered no explanation for why the charges have been dropped.
The businessman, who is director of an engineering company in Johannesburg, had been charged with possession and production of certain components of a centrifuge enrichment plant without the necessary permission from the government.
A dangerous find
Police confiscated 11 containers of uranium enrichment material from Meyer's factory. They were then sealed and transported to a secure site at the Pelindaba nuclear research plant near Pretoria.
The items do not constitute a weapon of mass destruction, but they are essential components in the process to enrich uranium to make it suitable for nuclear weapons.
The founder of Pakistan's nuclear program, Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, is seen in this March 19, 1998 photo.
Reports said the arrest of the men in South Africa took place in cooperation with security agencies from Europe and America.
The Americans have expressed their concerns that Khan (photo) may have helped Iran and other countries with their nuclear programs. Some of the nuclear weapons, they fear, may have been obtained by terrorist groups such as al Qaeda. Khan, who was in charge of Pakistan's nuclear program from 1976 to 2001, was pardoned by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in February for transferring nuclear technology to other countries, including North Korea.