German Engineer Guilty of Nuclear-Technology Smuggling | Current Affairs | DW | 05.09.2007
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Current Affairs

German Engineer Guilty of Nuclear-Technology Smuggling

A South African court has found a German engineer guilty of seven charges of contravening the Non-Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction Act and the Nuclear Energy Act, and two counts of forgery.

Gerhard Wisser (r) and Daniel Geiges (l)

Gerhard Wisser (r) and Daniel Geiges (l): Players in a global black market

Gerhard Wisser was sentenced to three years under house arrest and given a suspended jail sentence of 18 years.

The 68-year-old engineer struck a plea bargain with prosecutors after he admitted in the Pretoria High Court to being involved in attempts to supply parts for Libya's aborted nuclear weapons program.

Wisser, former managing director of Johannesburg engineering company Krisch, admitted he had played a role in a global black market in atomic weapons technology headed by disgraced Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, who has admitted to helping nations under international embargo develop their weapons programs.

The case is part of an international effort to crack down on a network that has helped Libya, North Korea and Iran skirt sanctions in their pursuit of nuclear technology.

The sentence also sets a precedent for the possible prosecution of other members in Europe or Asia, and Wisser has agreed to cooperate with South African and overseas authorities in their investigations.

Wisser denied he had suspicions

A capsule of uranium hexaflouride

A capsule of enriched uranium from Iran

His guilty plea marked a surprise turnaround in Wisser's case.

Despite having worked on South Africa's secret apartheid-era nuclear program in the 1980s, Wisser insisted he had suspected nothing when he was approached in 2000 by a nuclear industry contact about manufacturing a "compact pipework system" for an anonymous client, German news service DPA reported.

The client had paid him one million euros ($1.3 million) to find a company in South Africa to carry out the work.

Wisser and his employee, Swiss-born engineer Daniel Geiges, soon realized that the drawings were for a uranium enrichment plant. Wisser has always claimed that it never occurred to him that it could be for use in a nuclear weapons program.

Ha awarded the contract to an old friend and fellow engineer with experience in the nuclear industry, Johan Meyer of Tradefin Engineering near Johannesburg.

Wisser repeatedly claimed he did not suspect he was abetting Libya's nuclear program until mid-2003 and that he believed he was working for Pakistan's nuclear energy program -- even when two Libyan engineers arrived in South Africa to inspect the plant in 2002.

"The realization dawned" after Meyer received a payment from Libya in 2003, but Wisser only pulled the plug on the plant when Italian and US authorities intercepted a ship carrying parts for Libya's nuclear program off the coast of Italy in October 2003, exposing Moammar Gadhafi's then atomic ambitions.

The order was given in a text message to Meyer urging him "to destroy the bird (plant) and all its feathers (project)." Meyer, who later turned state witness, ignored the instructions.

Radiation symbol

Wissser admitted to manufacturing nuclear material

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.

According to experts, it could have been used to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for several nuclear bombs a year.

Factors for a lenient sentence

Wisser's agreement to cooperate with authorities in South Africa and abroad in the investigation of other players in the network may have helped secure his lenient sentence.

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 six million rand ($800,000) in cash and over 2.8 million euros in overseas assets.

"We regard the conviction as a significant step in combating nuclear proliferation networks," said South Africa's National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) in a statement.

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