In October 2003 the German-registered ship BBC China was boarded and searched in the Italian port of Taranto in a joint US–UK–Germany–Italy operation. Investigators seized five containers bound for Libya that held components for uranium enrichment equipment. The containers bore the logo of Scomi Precision Engineering, a Malaysian company contracted by the network of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the architect of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme.
The case of the BBC China was a symbolic turning point in the history of nuclear (counter-)proliferation. Under pressure the Khadaffi regime finally gave up its programmes related to weapons of mass destruction and Pakistan’s national hero A.Q. Khan was forced into house-arrest after publicly confessing his proliferation activities relating to North Korea, Iran and Libya. Besides, a host of people across the globe were accused of relations with Khan’s network and were brought to courts. While most of these legal cases were concluded long ago, Dutch radio programme Argos recently discovered that one case was still pending: a Turkish case against two companies and their Turkish owners, as well as a Dutch and a Swiss engineer. Last week the court in Istanbul held just another session in what seems to be a never-ending story.
That case is also linked to the BBC China and concerns a so-called sixth container with a consignment “aluminum casting and dynamo” for Libya from Turkish engineer Günes Cire, apparently parts for ultra centrifuges for uranium enrichment.
The Turkish consignment was left untouched by the investigators and later delivered to Libya, which alerted international inspectors upon its arrival in Tripoli.
The Khan network relied on companies in Turkey to procure and assemble critical nuclear components. Elektronik Kontrol Aletleri and Eti Elektroteknik for example imported centrifuge motors and aluminium castings from Europe, assembled them, and sent them to Dubai, from where they were shipped to Libya.
The director of Eti Elektroteknik was Gunes Cire. Dutch engineer and businessman Henk Slebos owned 15% of the company, at least between 1998 and 2004. Cire, Slebos and A.Q. Khan knew each other from their university time in Delft, the Netherlands, in the 1960s and maintained friendly and business relations ever since.
In 2004, after Khan’s confessions, and as new proliferation details emerged, some of the main middlemen were brought to court. In the Netherlands Henk Slebos was eventually convicted to 18 months jail, of which 6 months suspended, plus 135,000 euro in fines for illegal exports of proliferation sensitive material to Pakistan. Last year he served his term. While Dutch authorities had known his involvement in Pakistan’s nuclear programme for decades, he had never before spent a prison term. Partly because of lacking export control instruments, but no less because of top-level intelligence interests, which were better served by keeping an eye on his activities, Slebos could long operate with relative ease.
So far it was not known that Slebos is also the subject of a Turkish criminal court case, which also started in 2004. Thanks to the Wikileaks, details of this case were revealed, but went unnoticed so far. In a cable dated 15 June 2007 he is mentioned together with four surviving Turkish suspects – Gunes Cire died in custody in 2004 – including Cires son Kürşad, the current director of the company. Also listed is Urs Friedrich Tinner, one of three Swiss family members considered key figures in the Khan network, but also suspected of being US intelligence operatives. The three Tinners are currently standing trial in Switzerland after more than seven years of investigations.
Cables on the issue show major Turkish frustration on the lack of cooperation by Swiss and Dutch authorities. In April 2008 a cable notes:
“Delays thus far are attributed to Turkey’s inability to obtain cooperation from Switzerland and Netherlands to obtain the testimony of defendants Tinner and Slebos, respectively.”
As does a subsequent cable from 15 January 2009, which states that the government of Turkey (GOT) “still has not received any responses to its requests to the governments of Switzerland and the Netherlands for their assistance in obtaining a written deposition from Tinner and Slebos, respectively. While making clear the GOT is not in position to influence the judicial process, Ulgen expressed concern that the court may eventually dismiss the case if the GOT is unable to obtain the needed cooperation from other governments.”
Radio programme Argos contacted Henk Slebos, who told them being unaware of a Turkish case, but refused further comments. Argos also contacted Dutch authorities, of which the ministry of Security and Justice claims it cannot find any request to cooperate in the case.
Which is strange. First: the Turks have worked closely on the case with the Americans, so linking up with the Dutch should not have been a problem at all.
Secondly, apart from an official request, why didn’t the Turks never show up at the Dutch court case that ran largely in parallel for so many years? It would have been the most direct way to get in touch with the investigators of Slebos’ case in the Netherlands as well as Slebos personally, who was present at all court sessions.
One of the most unlikely obstacles the Turkish case apparently faces, is getting the address details of Slebos – for which it has now asked assistance through Interpol. Certainly a few years back a simple internet search engine would quickly have revealed all necessary details to send a letter to Slebos telling him he was indicted in a criminal court case. But even today, Slebos does not make too much of a secret of his whereabouts – his latest business SRAF is simply on the internet’s yellow pages.
Nevertheless, the PvdA (social-democrats) will ask the government to clarify their perceived lack of cooperation. So who knows, Henk Slebos will have to face Justice one more time.
[FS, 6 June 2012]