Reuters: German prosecutors are preparing criminal charges against a group of Germans whom they suspect of illegally helping Iran obtain technology that could be used to develop nuclear weapons, officials and diplomats told Reuters.
By Louis Charbonneau
BERLIN, Feb 11 (Reuters) – German prosecutors are preparing criminal charges against a group of Germans whom they suspect of illegally helping Iran obtain technology that could be used to develop nuclear weapons, officials and diplomats told Reuters.
The General Prosecutor’s Office in Karlsruhe said it was in contact with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, about its investigation into nuclear proliferation activities.
“The General Prosecutor’s Office is contact with the IAEA in Vienna in connection with an investigation of suspected proliferation directed by an intelligence agency,” said Frauke-Katrin Scheuten, a senior federal prosecutor.
She declined to give further details.
However, a European Union diplomat familiar with the investigation said the prosecutors were focusing on a group of more than half a dozen Germans living in Germany, Switzerland and South Africa.
“They are preparing charges against around eight men, mostly for helping Iran, but also Libya, get centrifuge and other nuclear technology,” the EU diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
Centrifuges are used to enrich uranium for use as fuel in nuclear power plants or in weapons. The sale of centrifuge components and design information is highly restricted and is subject to strict export controls in most countries.
The diplomat said the Germans were suspected of having acted as middlemen to help Iranian intelligence agents acquire technology that Western countries refused to sell to Iran.
Germany, like other EU countries and the United States, fears Iran is developing nuclear weapons under cover of a civilian atomic energy programme. Tehran denies wanting bombs and says it is interested only in generating electricity.
The diplomat said the German suspects, some of whom are already in investigative custody, were linked to the so-called “Khan network”, a nuclear black market run by Pakistan’s now-disgraced nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan.
Khan, the father of Pakistan’s atom bomb, has admitted supplying nuclear secrets to North Korea, Iran and Libya, which in December 2003 vowed to abandon its nuclear programme.
The discovery of Libya’s atomic weapons programme has helped the IAEA unearth a mass of detail about Khan’s network, although its full extent remains unknown, IAEA officials say.
The participation of Germans in Khan’s network has been known for some time. However, several diplomats familiar with the German investigation said prosecutors had uncovered signs that German involvement was greater than previously suspected.
“It may be that the idea that Khan was directing this network is a bit simplistic. The involvement of Germans was extensive,” one diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
He added that citizens of other European countries — including France, Belgium, Switzerland and Britain — had contributed to Iran’s nuclear programme, the extent of which it hid from the IAEA for nearly two decades until it declared its uranium enrichment programme in 2003.
The IAEA’s board of governors decided this month to report Iran to the U.N. Security Council, which has the power to impose sanctions, over fears it is developing atomic weapons.
David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector and head of the Washington-based think tank the Institute for Science and International Security, welcomed Germany’s plans to prosecute its citizens for involvement in helping Iran and other countries get sensitive nuclear technology.
“I don’t see this as an indictment of Germany at all. I think the reason you’re seeing these cases is that Germany is so determined to get these people,” Albright, who is an expert on nuclear export controls, told Reuters.
“Some of these guys are hardened criminals who were determined to do their business,” he said.
One German official familiar with the case, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the prosecutors would probably charge some or all the suspects with treason.
Albright said treason was the obvious charge “since it’s so much easier to prove than some other criminal charges”. Treason involving the sale of nuclear secrets to Iran in the 1980s and 1990s is unlikely to be subject to a statute of limitations.
This would not be the first case of treason charges against a German citizen for helping a country in the Middle East with uranium enrichment. In 1999, Karl-Heinz Schaab was found guilty of treason for providing Iraq with classified documents about centrifuge technology for a secret atomic programme.
After the discovery of Iraq’s nuclear weapons programme in 1991, Germany tightened its export control laws, which Albright said made it “much more difficult for proliferators to operate”.
Last month German federal prosecutors charged two German citizens with espionage, and diplomats and intelligence officials said they were suspected of helping Iran develop missiles that could be used to carry nuclear warheads.
Diplomats familiar with the German investigation said prosecutors were not yet ready to file formal charges against the men, since they were still in the process of gathering evidence. There is also the complicated question of extradition requests for some people living abroad, they said.
Gerhard Wisser, a German living in South Africa, and his Swiss colleague Daniel Geiges were arrested in September 2004 after local prosecutors said they had evidence linking them to the Khan network. They remain in South African custody.