Nuclear Monitor, December 23, 2005 – No. 640
Following an 18-month long juridical process, the district court of Alkmaar in the Netherlands, convicted Henk Slebos, two of his companies and a former employee of five violations of the export law on December 16.
In all five cases, the goods (graphite, bearings, manometers, O-rings and triethanolamine) were sent to the Institute for Industrial Automation, widely believed to be the purchasing arm of KRL, Pakistan’s key nuclear facility, without an export licence. Slebos was sentenced to a one-year prison term, of which eight months were suspended, and, with his companies, fined 197,500 Euro (approx. US$237,000). The St-Pancras (NL) based businessman was granted two weeks to consider an appeal and until then remains free. The ex-employee was sentenced to 180 hours of community service and told to pay a 5,000 Euro (approx. US$6,000) fine.
Remarkably, the case was only pursued by the Dutch authorities following requests from both the German and U.S. governments in 2001, this despite the fact that Slebos had previous history where illicit nuclear technology and Pakistan were concerned.
Old school network
From 1961, the disgraced Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan studied in former West Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, where he received his doctorate. Khan and Henk Slebos met more than forty years ago when they both studied metallurgy at Delft Technical University, they became friends and stayed in contact ever since.
Khan’s professional career began in May 1972 at FDO (‘Fysisch Dynamisch Onderzoekslaboratorium’ or Physical Dynamic Research laboratory founded as in-house laboratory for Stork-Werkspoor in 1971) in Amsterdam. At that time FDO was the main subcontractor to UCN, the Dutch branch of uranium enrichment company Urenco. After suspicions around Khan’s intentions arose, he was transferred to a different position within the company in 1975 but suddenly left for Pakistan and resigned his post at FDO. Khan had apparently taken full advantage of the freedoms he enjoyed while working within the Dutch nuclear industry and returned to Pakistan armed with a wealth of knowledge, technology and contacts.
Khan soon became head of Pakistan’s ultracentrifuge (UC) project, rivalling the plutonium route then pursued by the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission and in his new function quickly set up a network of suppliers and intermediaries, mainly from Europe, to enable the swift development of the UC-project within Pakistan. Sooner than many expected, Pakistan was ready to enrich uranium to nuclear weapons grade.
After university Slebos worked in the Dutch Navy as a ’trouble shooter’ for ship repairs for five years and was also involved in purchasing titanium tubes for submarine exhaust systems and doing research on underwater welding (1). The Navy job put him in contact with Explosive Metal Works Holland (EMWH), a specialised firm treating steel and other materials using explosives. He later secured a job with the firm and became commercial director around 1974. With EMWH, Slebos worked on the Kalkar fast breeder reactor (2) and for UCN. (Although building was completed in the mid 1980s, Kalkar was never used as such and the entire project was finally stopped in 1991. Today it is an amusement park…) Khan (at FDO) and Slebos were then able to develop a professionally relationship as both worked for UCN as subcontractors. They were able to meet at the 1975 Nuclex fair in Basel and worked together researching the highly secret 4M-type UC (3). This was first revealed by Dutch radio programme ‘Argos’ in April after it obtained a copy of a secret June 1979 annex to a Dutch government investigation into A.Q. Khan and his activities in the Netherlands. The report and its annexes were recently largely declassified.
The cooperation continued after Khan’s return to Pakistan and in late 1976 – shortly after leaving EMWH – Slebos flew to Pakistan for the first time. As he recalled on a 2002 recording obtained by the Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad, “And there problems came up. You look at things purely as a boffin, both of us being metallurgists. I had a knack for aircraft construction, and had also been doing troubleshooting work for the Navy where you worked with all the kinds of materials (…). That is how my contact started and continued. At a certain moment business resulted from that. I delivered him (…) the whole lot, the whole range from electronics to the construction materials, all kinds of things that were not forbidden to deal in.” (4)
That was partly true. Slebos knew what he was doing and willingly took risks, even exporting goods that required a licence without actually obtaining one. Part of his modus operandi was to use front companies in Europe, the Gulf States and Pakistan, as well as concealing parcel contents and final destinations. Moreover, Dutch export laws were in an embryonic stage at the time, especially on the nuclear side.
Slebos was first caught illegally exporting a U.S.-made Tektronix oscilloscope from Schiphol airport on October 23, 1983. During the trial, it was revealed that Slebos had previously been warned by the export control authorities not to export the oscilloscope without a licence. Assuming that he would not get one, he decided to evade Dutch customs by sending the mainframe to Sjarjah in the United Arab Emirates, from where transport to Pakistan would be arranged.
The abstract of his testimony to the court that sentenced him in 1985 reads: “Early in 1977, I met Khan again in the Netherlands (…) During a conversation he asked me whether I could deliver goods to Pakistan for a project he was working on. The project he was referring to was the establishment of a laboratory at which fuel would be enriched for a reactor in Karachi. From that time till today I have regularly acted as supplier of various goods for the Khan-project.” (5)
An initial one-year prison term was nevertheless overruled by an appeals court in 1986 and reduced to a sixmonth suspended sentence and a fine of 20,000 guilders (around 9,000 Euro or US$10,500). The court decided that the prosecution had not proven the intent for nuclear end-use and took into account that Slebos had no previous criminal record.
Slebos later told the makers of the Dutch documentary programme ‘Zembla’ that the people that helped Pakistan build its bomb, had all known each other and admitted to being in contact with “maybe even a thousand” companies across Europe that had supplied him with the required materials. Even when he was prosecuted for the oscilloscope, his business continued.
The earlier stories of Khan’s proliferation activities were long since considered old news, that was at least until the story of his ‘nuclear black market network’ broke in the winter of 2003/2004. In January 2004, and after years of denial, the Dutch government then admitted that Urenco technology had been found in both Libya and Iran and by February, Khan had publicly admitted to selling nuclear technology and materials to both countries and North Korea. Henk Slebos’ crucial involvement with Khan in the early development of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program was later revealed. Slebos admitted to having helped Pakistan build a bomb, but denied further involvement in proliferation activities (6). Close call Slebos may not have had proven criminal records but the oscilloscope case was no ‘accident’. It recently entered the public domain that the Dutch internal intelligence service had been watching Slebos from the late 1970s, when he had arranged a deal with Dutch company VDT for the export of over 6,000 UC rotor tubes to Pakistan. In the aftermath of the first revelations on AQ Khan’s nuclear espionage (1979/1980), the case went to court. Although it was stated that the tubes had UC specifications, a loophole in the export laws that applied at the time (1984) saved the company from prosecution – it could not be proven that the tubes were specifically developed for ultracentrifuge purposes. Middleman Slebos escaped trial even though his involvement was made clear in a statement given to the internal security service, BVD, by his former boss at EMWH, who was also approached by Slebos for the order.
From the late 1980s to the late 1990s, Slebos managed to stay under the radar but shortly after Pakistan’s 1998 nuclear tests he and his two companies Slebos Research BV and Bodmerhof BV were linked with intercepted exports to Pakistan.
Between February 1998 and February 2002, A.Q. Khan was known to have made mysterious journeys around Africa accompanied by high-ranking Pakistani nuclear officials and Henk Slebos on occasion. The Londonbased accountant Siddiqui recorded his memoirs of travel with Khan and friends in the Urdu language booklet “A short trip to Timbuktu” published in 2000. (7)
In September 2003 ‘Slebos Research’ became a sponsor of ISAM, a conference organized by Khan’s nuclear laboratory KRL. As more details on Khan’s nuclear proliferation network became public in early 2004, a Pakistani government spokesman stated at a press conference that, among others, a Dutch businessman called “Hanks” had been involved. Soon after the Dutch press discovered that the Public Prosecutor was building a case against Slebos, resulting in this latest prosecution.
Ideology or greed
Despite denying all knowledge, it remains to be seen whether Slebos was actually aware of Khan’s dealings with North Korea, Libya, Iran and possibly others. He did continue dealing with Pakistan long after it had attained its nuclear status, which – according to Slebos – was his main goal. And if Slebos – as he also claims (9) – is both Khans’ best friend and long time business partner, it seems strange that he would only have known about Pakistan’s nuclear programme and not the other dealings.
Although he now portrays himself as a man driven by ideology – having helped Pakistan counterbalance India’s nuclear power – in earlier statements he had admitted to being driven by financial motives. Either way one crucial question remains; how was Slebos, despite almost 30 years of known links to the Pakistani nuclear programme able to continue operating as a key supplier for Pakistan’s nuclear programme. Much is still unknown about the role that the different intelligence services, export control authorities, ministers and high-level bureaucrats played with respect to both Khan and Slebos. This story may yet take another three decades to fully unravel.
- Jaco Alberts and Karel Knip, “De vriend van een atoomspion” (The friend of a nuclear spy), NRC Handelsblad, February 21 2004.
- Eric van Staten, “Ideaal droomhuis” (Ideal dream house), De Telegraaf, August 20 2003; Alberts and Knip, February 21 2004.
- Dutch radio programme ‘Argos’ on April 29 2005
- Alberts and Knip, NRC Handelsblad, February 21 2004
- District court of Alkmaar, July 2 1985.
- From interview with Dutch TV documentary programme ‘Zembla’, November 7 2005.
- Edward Harris and Ellen Knickmeyer, “Head of Pakistan’s nuclear ring made repeated visits to uranium-rich Africa”, AP, April 20 2004.
- David Rohde and David E. Sanger, “Key Pakistani Is Said To Admit Atom Transfers”, New York Times, February 2 2004.
- ‘Zembla’, November 7 2005.