On Oct. 16, German authorities sentenced German engineer Gotthard Lerch to five and one-half years in prison for his role in aiding
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
Swiss authorities arrested Lerch in 2004 and extradited him to
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
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
The diplomat indicated that
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
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,
Other convictions by European countries have resulted in more moderate sentences. Following trials in the
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
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