Publication: Issued: Date: 2004-03-04 Reporter: Shoshana Kordova Reporter: Sara LeibovichDar

The Baffling Case of Asher Karni



Date 2004-03-04


Shoshana Kordova, Sara Leibovich-Dar

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On New Year's Day, Israeli-South African businessman Asher Karni was arrested as he arrived at Denver airport for a ski holiday. The pillar of the Cape Town Orthodox Jewish community is suspected of illegally shipping to Pakistan U.S.-made devices that can be used in nuclear weapons.

To American prosecutors, his name represents one more link in the complex chain by which weapons of mass destruction land in the clutches of potential Islamic terrorists eager to wreak devastation on what they consider the Western devil and the Zionist enemy. To his friends, Asher Karni is an affable, charitable and honest paragon of the religious Zionist establishment who served as a major in the Israel Defense Forces, moved from Israel to Cape Town with his family as a Bnei Akiva emissary and stayed on for 18 years as businessman and spiritual leader.

The United States government accuses Karni, who was raised in Israel, of using front companies and falsified documents to try to send 200 triggered spark gaps - electronic devices that can be used both for breaking up kidney stones and detonating nuclear weapons - to Pakistan without the necessary export license. Karni, who has been selling electronic devices for military use for about 15 years, denies knowing that the devices had nuclear capabilities. Recent court records indicate that Karni worked secretly to supply India with weapons as well, with several e-mails to and from Karni indicating that he appeared to be aware that he would be using misleading shipping documents.

Karni was arrested as he arrived with his wife and youngest daughter in Denver, Colorado, on New Year's Day for a ski vacation. Karni, 50, has since been transferred to a Maryland jail, where he is awaiting a grand jury decision about whether to indict him. The criminal complaint against Karni says his profit for the entire sale of 200 triggers would have been $89,400, which is worth about 590,040 South African rands at the current exchange rate.

The charges against Karni have been rendered particularly relevant in recent weeks, as the United States pressures Pakistan to shut down its black-market nuclear network. Following an admission by the father of Pakistan's atom bomb, Abdul Qadeer Khan, that he transferred nuclear information to Iran, Libya and North Korea, Iran has admitted it bought nuclear components on the black market. Meanwhile, Malaysian police are investigating the trafficking of nuclear components to Libya, and the International Atomic Energy Agency has determined that Libya is working on wiping out all traces of two decades of work on its nuclear arms program.

The orphan from Bnei Brak

Asher Karni was born 50 years ago in a small city in Hungary, near the Slovakian border. In 1957, Karni, his older sister Bracha and their parents moved to Ashkelon and then to Bnei Brak. He was 10 when his father died suddenly, and 16 when his mother got run over by a car as she was crossing the street outside the Kfar Haroeh Yeshiva, the boarding high school he attended. From then on, Karni was known at the yeshiva - which is affiliated with the Bnei Akiva religious Zionist youth movement - as the orphan from Bnei Brak.

Moshe Abramowitz, a farmer from Yavne'el, said his childhood friend Karni didn't like to talk about his mother's death. "He was very closed," said Abramowitz. "I tried to help him, but he didn't want people getting involved in his life. Since he was an orphan, he was a bit distant from all the others and considered unfortunate."

But other Israeli friends of Karni's remember him as one of the best students in the class, a good yeshiva boy who showed up to prayers early and was enthusiastic about learning Talmud - and who played a mean game of basketball. His ball-handling skills were "a few levels above everyone else," said a family member. "That skill accompanied him and helped him from a social perspective." For a while, Karni was even sought after by national league basketball teams, but he gave up his dream of pursuing the sport professionally when his rabbis refused to give him permission to play on Shabbat.

After Karni's mother died, he moved to his sister's Bnei Brak home, where she was living with her husband and their two children. Her husband, Zvi Perry, said this week that the family was dumbfounded by the allegations against Karni. "We have no idea how this happened to him," he said. "It sounds like a Kafkaesque story. We don't know how to take it."

Upon completing yeshiva, Karni got a bachelor's degree in chemistry, became a major in the IDF artillery corps - where he commanded a gun emplacement - and received an MBA from Tel Aviv University while serving in the career army. During his army service, Karni married Shuli, a kindergarten teacher from Ramat Gan. Two of their three daughters are now married and living in Israel.

Karni's family is trying to minimize the significance of his arrest. "The Americans have been hysterical since September 11," said one of his daughters, Inbal Edel. "He's not the first Israeli to be arrested on false suspicions. From our perspective, it's best if people talk about it as little as possible and don't write about it at all."

One of Karni's friends from yeshiva days recalled how eager the young Karni was to live abroad. "He spoke about wanting to get out of the army and leave Israel," said Menachem Domb, who works for Amdocs in Cyprus. "He said he had no family, nothing to tie him to Israel. He wanted to try his luck somewhere else."

In 1985, Karni finished his army service and tried his luck as a Bnei Akiva shaliakh (emissary) in Cape Town, South Africa. While there, he initiated a program that sent 10th-grade students to learn Torah for one semester in Israel; the boys went to Karni's alma mater, Kfar Haroeh, and the girls to Ramat Karniel Kfar Pines Ulpana. Afterward, Karni decided to stay in South Africa, where he bought and sold electronic equipment for the weapons industry at Eagle Technology and then - after being dismissed in a cloud of bitter mutual accusations in 2002 - for his own company, Top-Cape. He has also been helping to lead Cape Town's Beit Midrash Morasha synagogue (more commonly known as the Arthur's Road shul). Karni regularly read from the Torah, led services and taught Cape Town's longest-running Talmud class for 15 years, community members said.

"I've known Asher for 18 years, and we've always found him to be straight, upright and reliable in every sense," Mickey Glass, executive director of Cape Town's Union of Orthodox Synagogues, told Haaretz late last month. "The community that he served for the past 18 years has great difficulty in believing these allegations."

A `license violation'

According to court documents, Karni is accused of ordering 200 triggered spark gaps from the PerkinElmer Optoelectronics manufacturing company in Massachusetts via Giza Technologies in New Jersey last fall. However, at the request of American federal law enforcement officials, PerkinElmer disabled an initial shipment of 66 devices sent to Giza, and the triggers became part of a sting operation. The prosecution has said an anonymous source in South Africa provided it with the details of the deal.

Karni is accused of falsely reporting that the spark gaps were going to South Africa - which would not require a special export license from the U.S. - and then repackaging the spark gaps in South Africa and sending them on to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and, finally, to Islamabad, where the prosecution said the items had been requested by Humayun Khan of the Pakland PME Corporation.

The United States alleges that Karni knowingly failed to get an export license and did not accurately report the spark gaps' ultimate destination, for which he could reportedly serve up to 10 years if convicted. The prosecution alleges "In sum, there is probable cause to conclude that Karni has exported, attempted to export, and conspired to export triggered spark gaps from the United States to Pakistan without first obtaining an export license and with the knowledge that such an export license was required if the goods were destined for Pakistan.

"Moreover, Karni structured the transaction so as to conceal his true purpose from the American authorities. In particular, Karni designated a false end-user for placement on U.S. export documents."

Harvey Steinberg, who represented Karni in Denver, was quoted as saying the case concerned nothing more than "a license violation." According to Karni's defense there, he did not know he needed a license to export the detonators. Two sources familiar with the case said Karni claims he had been informed by one of the companies involved in the deal that no export license was needed. But in the same correspondence, the company also said it did need to know the end-user, one of the sources said.

The American government maintains that a PerkinElmer representative in France wrote to Karni last year saying that exporting spark gaps to Pakistan would require a U.S. license and refusing to sell him the products without it. The prosecution said Humayun Khan urged Karni to try harder, writing in an e-mail "I know it is difficult but that's why we came to know each other."

American licensing requirements are also readily available on the Internet. The U.S. Department of Commerce Web site posts the regulation that requires exporters to supply an export license for sending triggered spark gaps to Pakistan, citing "nuclear nonproliferation reasons."

Prominent Washington lawyer Nathan Lewin, who represents Karni, refused to make any statements on the case, although he did confirm that Karni claims he "definitely" knew nothing about the triggered spark gaps' nuclear capabilities. Karni is also being represented by Barry Boss of the Washington, D.C. firm Asbill Moffitt and Boss.

According to the prosecution, Karni has admitted that he sent the spark gaps bought by Giza to Pakistan. Herzl Kraz, a Maryland rabbi who runs the Hebrew Sheltering Home in suburban Silver Spring and who has been approved by the courts as Karni's custodian upon his release, said Karni had told him during visits to his jail cell that he "knew the shipment was going to Pakistan, but he didn't know it was anything illegal." Lewin, however, said Karni had not admitted to selling spark gaps to Pakistan for medical use.

On the other hand, Kraz said Karni told him he thought the spark gaps would be used in "various hospitals," thereby ostensibly accounting for the size of the order request. Experts say even large hospitals don't use more than half a dozen triggered spark gaps at most, and large orders raise red flags. A court filing on Karni's behalf includes a letter purportedly from the Pakistani user of the spark gaps, saying they had been sent to Agha Khan Foundation University and Hospitals in Pakistan and Sri Lanka. However, the prosecution said the foundation does not have any hospitals in Sri Lanka, and its hospital in Pakistan has only one kidney stone treatment (lithotripter) machine.

Although Karni has been granted bail, he has not been released as federal prosecutors continue to bring more arguments and evidence against him. The conditions of his release include $75,000 bail - which has already been provided by the South African Jewish community - and a $100,000 bond. In addition, Karni must waive his rights of extradition to South Africa and Israel, and wear an electronic monitoring anklet while in Kraz's custody. U.S. Justice Department official Channing Phillips said Karni is not prepared to meet all the conditions of release. Meanwhile, Karni's wife and youngest daughter are staying in Maryland, and his daughter, 15, is attending a Jewish day school there.

Karni is receiving kosher food and other religious requirements while in jail, Kraz said. This marks a change from when Karni was first arrested in Denver, where he had not been receiving kosher food or been allowed to wear a kippa, and did not have access to phylacteries or Jewish books. The issue was resolved by the Aleph Institute, an American organization that takes care of Jewish prisoners. The group was alerted to the situation by Rabbi Mendel Popack, the American-born head of the Chabad Centre of Cape Town, who flew to Denver to provide a live character reference ("we've known him as an honest and religious person"). Several other Jewish community leaders, many of them from South Africa, sent written references.

The emissary who stayed

Several South Africans who remember Karni from his emissary days described him as dedicated, organized, astute and approachable. Saville Stern, a former chairman of the Cape Town branch of Bnei Akiva now living in Modi'in, said Karni built up the movement by training some of the Jewish youths in the community to run it efficiently on their own, leaving behind a structure that carried Bnei Akiva through the next six to eight years. He also said Karni had hundreds of thousands of rands moving through his hands on a regular basis - funds geared toward Bnei Akiva summer camp and other programs - and that the money was always accounted for. "He did what he said and he said what he did," said Stern.

"He was a great shaliakh," said Dov Paritzky, the Bnei Akiva-Israel official who was in charge of Karni while he served as emissary. "He really led the community, taught Torah, served as a cantor, tutored bar mitzvah boys and got the children interested in religion in a fun way. He played basketball with them and was very charismatic."

Bnei Akiva approved Karni's request to stay in Cape Town one year beyond the original three-year stint, said Paritzky, but expected him to return to Israel afterward. "I sat with him in Cape Town; he never told us he was staying there. He fudged it and evaded it and delayed and delayed his return to Israel. For a long time, we had an illusion that he would return. In the end he stayed there. We didn't like it. In Bnei Akiva, it generally doesn't happen that an emissary doesn't return to Israel when he finishes his allotted time. It looks bad."

One of the primary arguments Karni's friends raise in his defense is his connection to Israel. Karni would never knowingly sell nuclear material to Pakistan, the reasoning goes, because he knows it could endanger the Jewish state. His service in the IDF, his religiosity and affiliation with the Zionist Bnei Akiva movement, his personal attachment to the land - and two of his daughters' residence here - have helped convince friends from the South African Jewish community of Karni's innocence (or, at worst, stupidity), and they have put up the bail money and are helping pay for other expenses, including legal fees.

"I think he is a very Zionist person even though he didn't live in Israel for many years," said a friend who knows him from Cape Town. "The bottom line is that all his children were heading to Israel - I think that it was quite clear to him that one day he wanted to go [back] to Israel. I think he felt, because of his contribution to the community, at the moment it was more important to be here. He felt like maybe it's kind of a mission."

With acknowledgements to Shoshana Kordova, Sara Leibovich-Dar and