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Two Men Charged with Smuggling Nuclear Equipment to Appear in S. African Court - 2004-09-13

In South Africa, two men charged with smuggling nuclear-related equipment to Libya are expected to appear in court again Tuesday. They are among several people linked to South Africa who have been arrested around the world and accused of supplying Tripoli with nuclear materials.

Three arrests in South Africa in just over a week, all for smuggling nuclear-related equipment. The first to be charged was businessman Johan Meyer.

Police searched Mr. Meyer's business and seized 11 shipping containers holding what they call "components of a centrifuge uranium enrichment plant." The equipment is not in itself a weapon of mass destruction, but it is a key part of the process of building a nuclear bomb.

Mr. Meyer's arrest hit the headlines after the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria congratulated South Africa for its work in breaking the nuclear proliferation network of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb.

But then without explanation, prosecutors dropped the charges against Mr. Meyer and arrested two other men, Gerhard Wisser and Daniel Geiges. Just weeks earlier, Mr. Wisser, a German citizen living in South Africa, had been arrested in Germany on nuclear-related charges and released on bail.

South African authorities have been extraordinarily tight-lipped about the nuclear smuggling cases. The head of South Africa's Council for the Non-Proliferation of Weapons Mass Destruction, Abdul Minty, is the only government official allowed to comment on the matter, and he has not said much.

"The investigations are ongoing, as we have said, and the police authorities too, they are at a sensitive stage," Mr. Minty said. "Therefore, it is not possible for any of us to discuss the details of the investigations."

One reason for the sensitivity is South Africa's long-standing role in the worldwide non-proliferation movement. South Africa is the only country in history to unilaterally dismantle its nuclear weapons program. The apartheid government built six nuclear bombs and partly assembled a seventh before abandoning the program in 1991.

It is not clear whether any of the people involved in allegedly selling nuclear equipment to Libya were involved in South Africa's weapons program. One local newspaper quotes the former head of the program as saying Mr. Meyer worked for him, but that allegation has not been confirmed and the government has refused to comment.

But some analysts doubt the connections to the old nuke program are very deep, if they exist at all. Renfrew Christie was jailed by the apartheid government for spying on the nuclear weapons program for the African National Congress. He spent seven years in prison, some of it on death row and some in solitary confinement. Today he is the dean of research at the University of the Western Cape, and he believes South Africa's old nuclear program has been completely eliminated.

"It was in the interest of the old South African government, which bitterly did not want to hand nuclear weapons to a new majority South African government," Mr. Christie said. "It was in the interests of Britain and the United States, who adamantly did not want the new South Africa to have nuclear weapons. It was in the ANC's long-term policy not to be a nuclear weapons state, they did not want nuclear weapons. So all the governments involved adamantly wanted the old South African apartheid nuclear weapons program sewn up absolutely tight."

Mr. Christie says South Africa's old nuclear equipment was destroyed or locked up, and would be out of date today anyway. The question is what he calls the "flesh and blood" factor, meaning the scientists and engineers who worked on the weapons program.

"The machinery was dealt with appropriately," Mr. Christie said. "And I was led to believe at the time that the humans involved, the flesh and blood and the brains, had been given adequate pensions so they didn't have to sell their souls and were being suitably looked after so they didn't carry on proliferating nuclear weapons."

Analysts, including Mr. Christie, have pointed out that South Africa is a large, industrialized economy with a robust engineering sector and a lot of cross-border trade in complicated industrial equipment. The uranium-enrichment centrifuge seized by the police is what is known as dual-use equipment, meaning it can be used for innocent purposes. But importing and exporting it requires a permit, and the men in custody are accused of failing to obtain those permits.

The nuclear-smuggling cases have caused some South African newspapers and a few analysts to quetsion whether the country has adequate controls over its shipping industry. Mr. Minty insists that the problem is not any worse here than it is anywhere else.

"Millions of containers go across borders every day," Mr. Minty said. "It's physically impossible for any state, no matter how good its control system is, to be able to look into that for dual purpose or other items. So South Africa shares the international community's concern over the illicit transfer of nuclear and nuclear-related dual-use technology and materials that could be used in weapons of mass destruction. And we therefore encourage the sharing of information that would identify individuals and entities involved in such illicit activities."

In this case, the clues came after Libya's abandonment of its nuclear program in December. The International Atomic Energy Agency has been following up on Libya's nuclear declarations, and that information is believed to have led authorities to the South African connections.

South African officials say the investigation is being conducted "in the context of the A.Q. Khan network," referring once again to the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb.

Earlier this year, Mr. Khan publicly confessed to selling nuclear technology to Libya, Iran and North Korea. He was quickly pardoned by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

Mr. Christie says it is possible that the same people dealing with Libya might have been dealing with other countries linked to the Khan network because their main concern is making a profit, and a very large one at that.

One has to understand that these are people motivated by money," Mr. Christie said. "But being motivated by money may mean that you only have one customer and not three, because customers get suspicious of each another.

The head of South Africa's non-proliferation council, Mr. Minty, says so far, all of the information and evidence the South African authorities are dealing with relates to the Libyan program, and not to any other countries. But he has not ruled out the idea that investigators could uncover links to other nations.