Wednesday, December 19, 2007
The Dutch role in shady nuclear deals
Pakistan has pardoned atomic guru Dr Abdul Khan for trading nuclear secrets, but Khan's Dutch business partner is under investigation in the Netherlands. What exactly was the Dutch connection? Aaron Gray-Block reports.
Suspicions of dodgy backroom deals have prompted the judiciary to investigate a Dutch national and his alleged role in supplying nuclear technology to Libya.
International intelligence services have accused Henk Slebos — the Dutch academic friend and business partner of Pakistan atomic scientist Dr Abdul Khan — of having a dubious relationship to the North African state of Libya.
Once synonymous with terrorism and the Lockerbie bombing, Libya is fast becoming a new found friend of the west.
Importantly though, the German and Italian seizure of a ship full of nuclear components headed for Libya in October 2003 helped prompt it to reveal — and renounce — its nuclear weapons programme in December.
It is curious though that Libya had already started talks with the US and Britain about ending its weapons of mass destruction programme, BBC reported. Did it operate in good faith and tip the Americans and the British off, or was it acting in bad faith?
Back in the Netherlands, however, Justice Ministry sources confirmed on 17 February that an investigation was now underway into a possible Dutch role in Libya's nuclear programme. It is not yet certain what crime Slebos is alleged to have committed.
The Haarlem Public Prosecution Office (OM) has refused to confirm the name of the suspect, but a spokesman said an investigation is being conducted into an alleged breach by a Dutch company of the import and export law.
The allegations relate to "dual use" goods that besides peaceful purposes, can also be applied to military use. The tax office's investigation service, FIOD-ECD, drew up a report about the matter last week, newspaper NRC Handelsblad reported.
It is widely believed that Slebos is the suspect in the investigation. But then allegations against him are not new. His involvement in dubious trading dates back to at least 1985.
Moreover, his name was mentioned again at the start of this month in Pakistan, where government officials revealed that Khan — known as the "father" of Pakistan's bomb — had confessed to selling nuclear secrets to North Korea, Iran and Libya via the black market.
Surprisingly, however, Khan was pardoned by Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf on condition he would co-operate with the ongoing inquiry.
The Pakistan inquiry and other investigations will examine the roles of several intermediaries who allegedly helped supply nuclear technology — including Dutch suspect Slebos — and who were mentioned in reports about Khan's confessions.
The US media also reported last week that American intelligence services had evidence allegedly implicating Slebos in the black market trade.
The Associated Press reported that the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and US agencies have said that Khan’s network became a comprehensive shopping venue for countries wanting atomic bombs.
IAEA chief Mohammed El Baradei has also recently said that the danger of a nuclear war has never been so serious as it is now.
In addition, the Dutch secret service AIVD has confirmed it is investigating how Dutch technology from the Urenco consortium — based in the eastern Dutch city of Almelo — was passed onto Libya, Iran and North Korea in the 1970s. The AIVD is working in co-operation with the IAEA.
Khan worked with a Dutch company called Physics Dynamic Research Laboratory (FDO) from 1972-75. The company conducted research for Urenco, which was set up by the British, Dutch and German governments to provide equipment to enrich uranium.
India detonated its first nuclear device in 1974 and it is widely assumed that part of the Pakistan project to develop its own bomb is based on the academic knowledge Khan gleaned in the Netherlands.
Khan obtained blueprints for Urenco centrifuges used to extract uranium 235 — which is needed for a nuclear explosion — from uranium hexafluoride gas. This means that uranium can be enriched for use in a nuclear power station, but also for the higher levels needed for a nuclear bomb.
The nuclear scientist left the Netherlands in the mid-1970s and set up near the Pakistan capital Islamabad the AQ Khan Research Laboratories. It is here where he started making his country's bomb.
Convicted in absentia in the Netherlands for stealing the designs, Khan's conviction was overturned because he was not properly served with court papers.
Dutch Foreign Minister Ben Bot and Economic Affairs Minister Laurens Jan Brinkhorst officially admitted to the Lower House of Parliament, the Tweede Kamer, last month that besides Pakistan, the centrifuge technology was possibly also passed onto Iran and North Korea.
It is not yet known if the Pakistan government was aware of Khan's black market dealings, but the US has since proposed that uranium enrichment technology should be restricted to those countries which already have the capacity. It hopes this will prevent secret uranium enrichment.
And on the eve of the US invasion to oust Saddam Hussein last year, Frits Veerman, the Dutch technician who worked with Khan and unintentionally helped him obtain nuclear secrets, claimed that the Pakistan academic had also sold centrifuge blueprints to Iraq.
Khan is revered as a hero in Pakistan and is quoted as saying that he was on a holy mission. Prior to his confessions, he also told De Telegraaf newspaper in 2001 that his work was only intended to put Pakistan on the nuclear world map. He expressed pride in his work and expressed his thanks for the Netherlands.
But for Veerman, the "brilliant academic" and his illegal activities have brought the world to the edge of a nuclear disaster. "As far as I am concerned, he deserves the strongest penalty — life imprisonment."
Khan was not alone though and US officials claim that American and European investigators were targeting several men believed to have been involved in shady nuclear trading two decades ago. They still, however, allegedly became enmeshed in the black market network.
Besides Slebos — who operates Slebos Research, a company that sponsored a conference organised by Pakistan’s Khan Research Laboratories last year — US intelligence services now claim that three Germans also helped Khan trade in nuclear secrets.
But the suspicions about Slebos — who studied in the city of Delft, near The Hague — are well known to Dutch authorities and he was sentenced in 1985 to 12 months jail for exporting an oscilloscope to Pakistan. Such devices draw graphs of an electrical signal.
Trouble was stirred again in 1998 because five intercepted shipments from Slebos Research and another company contained goods that could have been used in the Pakistan nuclear industry.
Allegations of improper action have since returned and US officials claim that the evidence indicates Slebos was involved in the Khan network that supplied nuclear weapons equipment to Libya in the 1990s. Libya is alleged to have been supplied with nuclear weapon designs, blueprints and equipment.
Slebos is now aged in his early 60s and lives in a modern villa in the North Holland town of Sint Pancras. He has angrily refused interviews, while his wife adamantly confirmed her husband is refusing to answer reporters' questions.
But with some experts raising alarm that people suspected of smuggling back in the 1980s have played a role in Khan's trade, a refusal by Slebos to respond to allegations might only be a temporary grace.
He might soon be forced, on the record, to answer the accusations in court.
20 February 2004
Editor's note: It was later confirmed that the court case against Slebos has been transferred to the Alkmaar Court, which ruled on 27 May that a judge will hear testimony from 12 witnesses in the coming few weeks. Slebos is facing charges relating to the illegal export of chemicals. Prosecutors claim the 20kg of chemicals — allegedly shipped to Pakistan from 1999 to 2002 — could be used in several ways, including in the making of mustard gas or ball bearings. Another man and two companies are also being prosecuted. But it is not clear if this case has any connection with Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb.