Nuclear traffic web stays secret

An unexpected conclusion of the nuclear trial in the Pretoria High Court this week has spared the South African government from having to air its nuclear secrets and perhaps embarrass a foreign ally.

Daniel Geiges, a Swiss-born and naturalised South African, pleaded guilty to breaking nuclear non-­proliferation laws and reached a suspended sentence agreement with the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA).

This move slammed the door on a trial that was expected to last up to three years. The case had been hailed as a victory for media freedom after the Mail & Guardian and the Freedom of Expression Institute successfully opposed a move by the NPA to hold the trial in secret.

The NPA cited the sensitivity of the trial’s subject matter and the potential for rogue elements to acquire nuke-making know-how. The plea agreement follows a similar agreement with Geiges’s former boss, Gerhard Wisser, late last year.

As part of their plea agreement both men are expected to expose their involvement in a global network of shady individuals first assembled by one AQ Khan, who is considered the ‘father” of the Pakistani atom bomb. Implicated in the network is Gotthard Lerch, a character who demonstrated his slipperiness when German authorities could not make charges stick against him.

In September last year Wisser admitted in his plea agreement that he had been the South African facilitator in efforts to supply equipment needed to enrich enough uranium to build an atomic bomb. The plea agreement accepted by Geiges this week resembles Wisser’s — but the earlier document’s mention of supplying ­uranium-enrichment equipment to ‘a country other than Pakistan” has been left out.

‘Each case is considered on the basis of its circumstances, including the involvement of an individual accused in crime; that is, the extent to which he participated in the furtherance of the crime,” said NPA spokesperson Tlali Tlali in response to this omission.

The NPA has refused to divulge the identity of the country concerned, citing South Africa’s non-­proliferation laws. According to state prosecutor Chris MacAdam, the plea agreement deliberately excludes any material deemed classified.

This same sentiment was echoed by Tlali, who said that the prosecuting authority could not reveal anything beyond what is in the plea agreement documentation.

MacAdam referred the M&G to Non-Proliferation Committee chairperson Abdul Minty, but he was not available to comment. Attempts to get comment from foreign affairs spokesperson Ronnie Mamoepa also proved unsuccessful.

The M&G has learned from reliable sources that the country concerned is Iran and that having this fact scrutinised in an open court could have embarrassing repercussions for South Africa and its Middle Eastern ally.

The sudden haste to agree to plea deals, according to Tlali, had nothing to do with the M&G‘s victory in arguing that the trial should be heard in an open court. Tlali also denied that these agreements were attempts to sweep South Africa’s dirty laundry on nuclear proliferation under the carpet.

It is common knowledge that Geiges had been attempting to negotiate a plea agreement with the NPA and that he had not been getting a sympathetic hearing.

He is now expected, in concert with Wisser, to help bring down what has been labelled the ‘Khan network”.

‘It is not proper to tell you where they [Geiges and Wisser] will be testifying, if at all,” said Tlali.

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