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Uranium-Smuggling Defendants Blame Police Sting

Uranium-Smuggling Defendants Blame Police Sting

Posted: June 28, 1995

By Lawson, Maggie Ledford

LANDSHUT, Germany-Attorneys for a Czech and four Slovaks on trial in Bavaria for uranium smuggling claim their clients were set up by German undercover agents.

German police shopped in Prague for everything from highly enriched uranium to illegal weapons, according to defense testimony in the case, which began June 21 in Landshut.

The five men were arrested July 4, 1994, at a roadside rest stop north of Munich, after police seized 900 grams (nearly 2 pounds) of low-grade uranium 235, thought to have come via Prague from the Black Sea submarine fleet in Ukraine.

Landshut businesswoman Christina Klein, 49, a sixth defendant, testified that she thought she had a wealthy buyer lined up for the uranium, but her client turned out to be German undercover agent Walter Boden.

Klein has claimed she didn't know uranium was dangerous or that trafficking in it was illegal.

Police testimony has not yet been heard in the Landshut case. However, some say police activities in this and related cases - aimed at stopping the smuggling of bomb-grade uranium - actually have encouraged illegal trading by creating the impression that a market exists for the material.

"I think the Prague people were set up by the German police - what [the police] did was illegal," said defense attorney Peter Balthasar.

Arrested and held since last July are exporter-importer Vaclav Havlik, 36, of Prague; former military pilot Juraj Bily, 53, of Humenne, Slovakia; trader Dusan Tacovsky, 61, of Ruzomberok, Slovakia; and two Slovak musicians, Gustav Illes, 45, and Ondrej Gergely, 47, both German residents. Klein, arrested Aug. 23, 1994, was later released.

Klein and Illes are also alleged to have been involved in smuggling into Germany a sample of weapons-grade uranium June 13, 1994.

The defendants could receive prison sentences of up to five years.

Testimony at Landshut now has linked Czech nuclear scientist Jaroslav Vagner with the case. Vagner, along with two others, was arrested in Prague Dec. 14, 1994, after police found in the suspects' car what the International Atomic Energy Agency of Vienna termed the largest amount of bomb-grade uranium ever confiscated.

Klein, a trader in goods ranging from powdered milk to rare metals such as osmium, claimed she got into the uranium business almost by accident. A man calling himself Tigran called her, she testified, saying a Russian diplomat in Berlin wanted to sell 3 kilograms of uranium.

She said that when word got out that she was looking for buyers, she received numerous faxes and phone calls from interested parties. One prospective client identified himself as an Israeli named Weiss. One of the defense attorneys in the case suggested in an interview that the man could have been an agent of Mossad, the Israeli secret service.

Judge Heinz Yblagger, a pithy Winston Churchill look-alike, told Klein it sounded as if she were conducting "an open bazaar." He grilled the defendants on who the original uranium supplier was, without success. Havlik said he knew the man, a Ukrainian, but wouldn't identify him.

Finding high-grade uranium difficult to obtain, Klein said she sought help from her friend Illes, a German resident since the 1970s. The search led to sources in Prague, she said.

The first uranium samples delivered didn't satisfy Boden, according to Klein. "He was angry - he said one sample was washing powder."

Illes said Boden came to Prague in search of better-quality uranium in mid-June. "Vagner was the person who had it," he said.

Illes claimed that Vagner, a nuclear scientist who once worked at the Czech power station at Dukovany, stored the uranium in a Prague bank safety deposit box.

Boden waited six hours for Vagner, "but he never showed," Illes said.

Illes claimed Boden then asked him to take DM 300,000 (5.6 million Kc) and "buy illegal weapons." Illes said he attempted to purchase the weapons in Brno but was refused. Illes, working with Havlik, then sought uranium through Slovak sources.

"I was informed that Mr. Bily had the material," to be bought for $465,000 per kilogram, Havlik said. Bily denied the allegations. Bily and Tacovsky joined Havlik in Prague early July 4, 1994, and the three men went to Germany, meeting Illes and Gergely at the rest stop.

Seven days of hearings have been scheduled in the trial, which is expected to finish in mid-July.

By Lawson, Maggie Ledford

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