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– Amb. Thomas Hajnoczi
Chair, MTCR
May 19, 2021
Germany Convicts Khan Associate

Peter Crail

On Oct. 16, German authorities sentenced German engineer Gotthard Lerch to five and one-half years in prison for his role in aiding Libya’s nuclear program. Lerch, who was also fined $4.7 million by a Stuttgart court, shared sophisticated vacuum technology as part of a nuclear smuggling network led by Pakistani nuclear official Abdul Qadeer Khan. This network provided Iran, Libya, North Korea, and potentially other countries with technology geared toward the development and manufacture of nuclear weapons. (See ACT, March 2004.)

Lerch’s sentence was the result of a plea bargain in which he reversed his initial claim of innocence and admitted to illegally exporting vacuum technology used in a uranium-enrichment program between 1999 and 2003. The Stuttgart state court that tried Lerch said Oct. 16 that he “admitted having supported the production of…piping systems for a gas ultra-centrifuge facility in South Africa,” which was being prepared by South African engineers for Libya.

Libya intended to use this technology to enrich uranium to the high levels necessary to act as the explosive core in nuclear weapons. Tripoli abandoned the effort in December 2003 following negotiations with the United States and the United Kingdom and the interception of a ship carrying centrifuge parts bound for Libya in October of that year. (See ACT, January/February 2004.)

Swiss authorities arrested Lerch in 2004 and extradited him to Germany in 2005. A state court tried Lerch in 2006 but suspended the trial due to procedural difficulties, including the untimely submission of documentation and a lack of key witness testimony.

A German diplomat told Arms Control Today Oct. 22 that there were three sets of laws under which Lerch could have been tried. Those laws included one covering treason and two export control regulations: the Foreign Trade Act and the more serious War Weapons Control Act. The diplomat explained that German authorities could not try Lerch for treason because the terms of Germany’s extradition agreement with Switzerland would not allow such a charge. The German government therefore sought to charge Lerch under the War Weapons Control Act, which carried harsher penalties than the Foreign Trade Act.

The War Weapons Control Act carries a maximum 15-year sentence for serious violations, which include exporting materials related to the development of nuclear weapons as part of a group committed to such an effort or for endangering Germany’s national security or “peaceful relations among nations.” Because the German authorities could not legally prove that Lerch was involved in the Khan network or was aware that the South African facility was intended for Libya’s nuclear weapons program, Berlin could not seek the maximum charge for such a serious offense.

The diplomat indicated that Germany received little cooperation during the trial from Malaysia and South Africa, who held potential key witnesses that could provide information incriminating Lerch.

One of those potential witnesses was Buhary Seyed Abu Tahir, a Sri Lankan national and Malaysian resident who admitted to serving as Khan’s middleman for selling nuclear technology to Iran and Libya. Tahir told Malaysian authorities about the involvement of several other individuals in the network, including Lerch. Tahir’s testimony to Malyaisan authorities in 2004 was considered inadmissible, however, because Lerch’s defense attorneys were not present at the time.

Malaysia sentenced Tahir to four years in prison in 2004. He was placed under house arrest following his release in June 2008.

Another potential witness was South African national Gerhard Wisser, who constructed the centrifuge plant that Lerch supplied with his vacuum piping-system technology. South African authorities sentenced Wisser to an 18-year prison sentence after he plead guilty to export control violations related to Libya’s and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programs.

Although the German government was unable to substantiate that Lerch was knowingly involved in Libya’s nuclear weapons program, the court did note in its Oct. 16 statement that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said that the gas piping system being constructed in South Africa was intended for Libya.

Even with the five-year sentence levied by the court following Lerch’s confession, he is unlikely to do any jail time. The German authorities are expected to subtract the time that Lerch spent in custody and on trial since 2004 from the sentence, with the remaining time scheduled for probation.

Lerch’s conviction is the third punishment meted out by German authorities for individuals involved in the Khan network. In 1998, Germany convicted Ernest Piffl of violating the Foreign Trade Act for providing Khan with centrifuge parts between 1988 and 1993. In 2005, Germany sentenced Rainer Vollmerich to seven years and three months in prison for similarly providing uranium-enrichment-related technology to Pakistan.

Other convictions by European countries have resulted in more moderate sentences. Following trials in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, other known members of the network have received suspended sentences of less than a year or community service requirements and fines less than $1 million.

Moreover, like the Lerch case, efforts to try other suspected members of the Khan network have faced obstacles obtaining admissible legal evidence of willful contributions to nuclear proliferation. A Swiss case against three Swiss nationals, Friedrich, Urs, and Marco Tinner, was recently hampered by the Swiss federal government’s destruction of files belonging to the Tinners that related to their work as part of the Khan network. (See ACT, July/August 2008.) According to Bern, the government destroyed the files to prevent them from falling “into the hands of a terrorist organization.” The Swiss government’s actions raised suspicions that it was protecting collusion by the Tinners with Western intelligence agencies.

Khan himself has apparently provided little information regarding the workings of his network since the terms of his 2004 house arrest were relaxed by the new Pakistani government earlier this year. Khan gave a number of interviews with the Pakistani and international press this summer and claimed that the Pakistani government was fully aware of his activities. He also renounced his confession, stating that then-President Gen. Pervez Musharraf forced him to act as the national “scapegoat.” Pakistani authorities have continued to refuse access to Khan by representatives of other governments and the IAEA.

In February 2004, Khan confessed to providing uranium-enrichment technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea, claiming that he did so without the knowledge of the Pakistani government. Musharraf pardoned Khan and placed him under limited house arrest at that time.