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Trial of German man accused of aiding Libya starts

Written by: Staff
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BERLIN, Mar 17 (Reuters) The first trial of a suspected member of a global nuclear black market that helped Libya, Iran and North Korea obtain technology useable in atomic weapons began in Germany today.

Gotthard Lerch, 63, is accused of helping Libya acquire atomic weapons technology in violation of German export laws, an official at the state prosecutors office told Reuters.

Investigators say Lerch participated in a black market run by the disgraced father of Pakistan's atom bomb, Abdul Qadeer Khan, which helped to Libya, North Korea and Iran skirt international sanctions in their quest for dual-use nuclear fuel technology.

German federal prosecutors in Karlsruhe had originally sought to charge Lerch with treason, but that charge was dropped to ensure his extradition from Switzerland, where he was living.

''He is no longer charged with treason but violation of export regulations, which is a local affair,'' a spokeswoman for the Federal Prosecutors Office said. State prosecutors in Mannheim, Germany are now running the case against Lerch.

A German government official familiar with the case said that was a ''political deal with Switzerland to ensure Lerch went on trial.'' Lerch has been held in a German jail since his extradition last summer. It was not immediately clear how he would plead to the charges.

Lerch was first named in a Malaysian police report based on the questioning of Buhary Syed Abu Tahir, a Sri Lankan resident in Malaysia, who was detained there in 2004 and has admitted to helping Khan peddle nuclear technology.

Khan, who was a national hero in Pakistan for helping Islamabad counter India's nuclear arsenal, publicly confessed in 2004 to helping Iran and Libya get nuclear enrichment technology and has been under house arrest ever since.

MACHINE SHOP 1001 The Malaysian police report says that Lerch tried to get pipes for Libya's so-called ''Machine Shop 1001'' project, which was a plan to build components for gas centrifuges that were unobtainable for Tripoli. Centrifuges purify uranium gas for use as fuel in nuclear power stations or atom bombs.

''Gotthard Lerch is alleged to have tried to obtain supplies of pipes for the Machine Shop 1001 Project by sourcing from South Africa but failed to obtain it even though payment had been made by Libya earlier,'' the report said.

Libya announced in December 2003 that it was renouncing all efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction cooperated with the United States and Britain to dismantle its programmes.

Federal prosecutors are also in contact with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna as they investigate the involvement of other Germans in the Khan network, German officials have told Reuters.

Some of the men who helped Iran get uranium enrichment technology could be charged with treason, the officials said.

Gerhard Wisser, a German living in South Africa, and his Swiss colleague Daniel Geiges were arrested in South Africa 2004 after prosecutors there said they had evidence linking them to the Khan network. The prosecutors are still preparing their case.

IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei has said that the Khan network was a virtual supermarket for countries interested in developing nuclear weapons. He said it sparked the biggest proliferation crisis since the appearance of the atom bomb in 1945.

REUTERS DKS PM1730

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