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Inquiry reveals extent of Swiss-apartheid links

Former Swiss intelligence chief, Peter Regli, was cleared, but criticised

(Keystone)

A defence ministry probe into apartheid-era links between the Swiss and South African secret services has criticised the conduct of Swiss officials.

Investigators said they had been sympathetic to the views of their South African counterparts and had never questioned the consequences of apartheid.

The report, commissioned by the defence minister, Samuel Schmid, cleared the Swiss secret service, and its former chief, Peter Regli, of allegations of illegal dealings, but criticised the closeness of their relations with the apartheid apparatus.

It said any historical analysis into the relationship between the two countries' intelligence services would be hampered because of missing documents.

The inquiry, set up last year under St Gallen law professor, Rainer Schweizer, was triggered by allegations that Regli had illicit dealings with the former head of South Africa's chemical and biological weapons (CBW) programme, Wouter Basson.

First contacts

The Schweizer report says the Swiss secret service first established contacts with its South African equivalent in 1977.

From 1980 onwards, the two services were regularly in touch (roughly eight times a year), and the links were maintained without interruption until the late 1990s.

Schweizer found that Swiss contacts with the South Africans were of a "technical" nature during the Cold War. At the time, South Africa was fighting a war in Angola against Soviet and Cuban-backed forces.

The report concludes that the Swiss secret service's special relationship with its South African counterparts was problematic, and resulted in contraventions of Swiss government policy.

"A close co-operation led nearly inevitably to certain politically delicate situations and even, in exceptional [circumstances], to certain violations of neutrality".

Missing documents

The report said many key documents had been destroyed. No contact protocols were found, particularly from reporting officers, and most significantly the service routinely destroyed much of the written record.

"Between 1992 and 1997, all contact protocols with partner services that were older than five years old were eliminated for space reasons," the report said.

It also suggested that the secret service "most likely" destroyed documents between 1999 and 2000, despite moves by Federal departments to address the issue of archiving.

Regli told swissinfo that it was standard practice in military intelligence to destroy old documents.

"[Once] documents have been evaluated, have been used and are not of any use any more they have to be destroyed because they belong to the partner. We follow these rules but unfortunately this has not been understood."

As to Regli's personal links to the South African services and Wouter Basson in particular, the report was critical of Regli's conduct, but found no evidence that he was involved in illegal activities.

Regli refused to comment on his relations with Basson, and would say only that "the professor who conducted this inquiry did not understand the functioning and the rules of an intelligence service".

Weapons and drugs

Basson - nicknamed "Dr Death" - alleged that Regli had brokered an arms and drug deal with corrupt Croatian officials (see "Apartheid era probe comes to an end").

Basson said Regli was trying to buy enriched uranium from the Croatians and, as part of the deal, he had helped Basson to secure 500 kilograms of methaqualone (also known as Mandrax), which Basson brought to South Africa in 1992.

The report presented no evidence of Regli's involvement. On the question of whether Regli was aware of Basson's activities, the report says its findings are limited because of poor service records.

Documents are also missing in South Africa, while a key player in the Regli affair, Jürg Jacomet, died in 1998.

However, the report does criticise Regli for not maintaining a "critical political distance" from Basson, and for failing to reveal all details of Switzerland's crucially important relationship with South Africa.

It says Regli - as head of the intelligence service - acted independently, and it quotes him as telling investigators that his role was as a "minister for foreign affairs on military and security issues".

But in an interview with the Zurich-based Sunday newspaper, the NZZ am Sonntag, Regli says that the Federal Council was aware of the Secret Service's contact with South Africa.

Threats

The report says that, in autumn of 1991, Regli wrote that external threats against South Africa had abated.

However, he warned that internal threats from the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC) - now in government - had increased.

Regli said that the democratisation of South Africa would threaten the country's political stability by encouraging extremist movements.

Regli's observations were accompanied by positive reports about the professionalism of the South African security forces. He noted that cooperation between the military and police was close and well established. For example, every soldier had undergone "counter-insurgency training".

On August 19, 1994, Regli wrote a departmental note commending South Africa's secret service as professional, disciplined and reliable.

"It is in the interests of our country to remain hanging on this umbilical cord, so-long as we can also be of service!" Regli wrote.

One-sided

Regli's views seemed pervasive in Swiss intelligence, according to the report, which suggested that the secret service was almost obsessed by what was going on in South Africa.

It said the situation in the apartheid state was a regular feature of the weekly, confidential reports about the country's secret service, circulated at a Federal level.

And it described those reports as extremely one-sided and coloured.

For instance, in 1988, when Swiss churches publicly criticised the so-called "safety precautions" and court decisions taken against "black troublemakers", Swiss intelligence dismissed these statements as "disinformation".

It also warned in a report about the ANC: "The ANC, which is controlled by the illegal communist party, is a well-organised terrorist organisation, which has as its goal a communist overthrow."

Unjustified

According to Schweizer the actions of the Swiss security service in South Africa - although carefully considered - ran against the wishes of the Swiss parliament.

"In my judgement, this is barely justified," concludes Schweizer.

He says the principles of international law, as well as the constitutional basis of Swiss foreign policy, does not require the types of links seen between the Swiss secret service and South Africa from 1977 to 1994.

Turning a blind eye

The report also criticises individual members of the Swiss secret service, for cultivating a "sympathetic exchange" with South African officers and politicians.

"They demonstrated in their written reports an incredibly close political sensibility [to South Africa]."

Schweizer's report also points out that no documents were found in which the secret service questions its South African counterparts about the consequences of the apartheid structure.

"Today, this turning [of a blind eye], is incomprehensible".

For his part, Regli told swissinfo: "We have a basic mission given by the politicians and the director of the intelligence service has to fulfil this mission. He has to take initiatives and if he does not, he does not fulfil his task."

He added that it was not his job "to make any political assessment of yes or no - should we be in touch with them or not".

Analysis difficult

Despite the criticism, however, the report concludes that the relationship between the Swiss secret service and its South African counterparts, did not lead to any active participation in human rights abuses.

The report concludes that: "any historical analysis of the relationship between the two services will have to battle against the acute gaps of the official archives."

swissinfo, Jean-Michel Berthoud

regli brief

The report cleared the Swiss secret service, and its former chief, Peter Regli, of allegations of illegal dealings, but criticised the closeness of their relations with the apartheid apparatus.

It said any historical analysis into the relationship between the two countries' intelligence services would be hampered because of missing documents.

Investigators said the Swiss secret service's special relationship with its South African counterparts was problematic, and resulted in contraventions of Swiss government policy.

The report's author concluded that the principles of international law, as well as Swiss foreign policy, do not require the types of links seen between the Swiss secret service and South Africa from 1977 to 1994.

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