For Part 1: The Baffling Case of Asher Karni (Part 1)
By Shoshana Kordova and Sara Leibovich-Dar, March 4, 2004
Undercutting the boss?
Karni had a double incentive to stay in South Africa, said Mickey Glass: Jewish community members were pressuring him to teach religious classes, and he received a business offer he couldn’t turn down.
Karni went to work at Eagle Technology, a middleman company that buys technological equipment associated with the defense industry from countries like the U.S. and Israel and sells it to South African buyers. Michael Bagraim, an attorney for Eagle, described the company this way: “If you need to shoot something or explode something and there’s electronic equipment for that, they can sell that.”
When Eagle Technology fired Karni in October 2002, the company claimed that he had been competing with his boss – selling Eagle’s clients the same military technology Eagle sells, but at a lower price and for his own profit.
Karni filed an arbitration suit for unfair dismissal, demanding more than 1 million rand (about $116,400 in 2002), said Bagraim. However, Eagle’s contentions were never proved because Karni dropped the case after several days of cross-examination. The parties settled the case with Eagle issuing a letter of apology “for any hurt feelings,” said Bagraim.
Peter Kantor, Karni’s lawyer in the dispute, called the settlement a “moral victory” and said Karni was dismissed only after sending the company several letters claiming he had not received all the commission payments due him for the previous three years. A case brought by Karni for insufficient remuneration is still pending, but is being delayed until Karni’s return to South Africa, whenever that might be.
Partial transcripts of the arbitration hearings indicate that Eagle accused Karni of making a private 300,000 rand ($34,900 at the time) deal for another company in a transaction that was supposed to have gone to Eagle. The money was then loaned to Karni for his mortgage, Eagle charges.
Due to the settlement, the accusation was never proved or disproved. Kantor, who is based in Cape Town, said his client had sold technological equipment only to companies outside South Africa – with Eagle’s knowledge and consent – and had never competed with Eagle while he was still working for the company, which sells only within the country. “He consistently and totally denied any untoward dealings and competition with [Eagle],” said Kantor, calling the company’s claim “totally untrue.” Kantor said that although Karni had set up his own company – an electronics supplier for the commercial and military industries called Top-Cape Technology – 18 months before his dismissal, any domestic sales Karni made took place only after he was fired from Eagle.
The arbitration transcripts also reveal what can be interpreted as possible inconsistencies in Karni’s presentation of his financial well-being or as an indication that Karni may have wanted to live beyond his means.
When asked at the hearing whether he had said it would have been difficult for him to resign because he was in a “financial predicament” due to a “lack of resources,” Karni said yes. However, he also said he made 700,000 rand a year ($81,490 in 2002) and had recently bought a 1.5 million rand house ($174,600 at the time).
When asked to reconcile his spending with his declared financial straits, Karni said his wife wasn’t happy with the “terrible” area “with all the dirt” in which they had been living for 13 years, on Eagle Technology chief Alan Bearman’s premises. Karni said his wife had been pressuring him to move and that sometimes people reach a decision that the time has come to change their lifestyle.
Karni also admitted in the hearing to sending out a brochure to prospective clients that claimed he had resigned rather than been fired. “Due to internal politics, family-relevant matters and management policies that I don’t agree with, I have decided to go my own way,” he wrote. When asked whether the statement was a lie, he said: “You can call it a lie, a white lie.”
Responding to questions about why Karni was asking Eagle for compensation, he said, “I am not a greedy person, and the money was nothing for me.” Karni’s Top-Cape Web site states about himself, “His experience, integrity, honesty and friendliness placed him and his company as prime supplier to the local and international electronics market place.”
Indeed, the American accusations against Karni have come as a complete surprise to at least one company that has had dealings with him. “When I heard what’s going on with him now, I was in indescribable shock,” said Haim Hoppert, head of the Israel branch of Excalibur, a company that manufactures airplane equipment. “He was always straight with us.”
The sentiment is echoed by one of Karni’s friends from yeshiva, Yosef Gesner, an accountant from Petah Tikva. “As far as I remember him, he’s not one of those people who would do things like this, certainly not for greed. He wasn’t after money and capital.”
For many of Karni’s friends and acquaintances familiar with his business dispute, it has merely fueled their conviction that Karni is the victim of an elaborate set-up. They believe the anonymous South African source who tipped off the U.S. was one of Karni’s local competitors.
Karni’s friends in Cape Town enumerate his good qualities, citing them as near proof of his innocence. Indeed, if Karni ever felt a sense of abandonment as a young orphan, he seemed intent on making sure that others in his vicinity didn’t suffer the same fate. On Fridays, he would regularly drive to the local geriatric home to bring people without close relatives in South Africa to spend Shabbat in his house, said a family friend who asked to remain anonymous. Especially on Shabbat, said the friend, Karni’s “house was always open to people in need,” including “a lot of people who didn’t have family.”
Even among Karni’s positive attributes, it is money that stands out: his friends say he couldn’t stop giving it away. Generosity – along with honesty and integrity – is one of the qualities Karni’s South African friends and acquaintances mention most frequently when asked to describe him.
“We’ve always known Asher as a very straight, honest and upright person,” said one friend. “If he gives a donation to the shul [synagogue], the next day the check will be there.”
Stan Kahn, an active member of the synagogue who has worked with Karni in running it, recounted seeing Karni giving money to a poor man who appeared to rely on the regularity of his charity. “I’ve seen [Karni] every day when he came out of shul – there was a poor guy sitting and waiting there, and there wasn’t a day that he didn’t give him some money,” said Kahn. Karni also made frequent donations to the shul – when he got called up to the Torah, at birthdays, “any celebration,” said Kahn. “He was always the first to give tzedaka [charity]; he was generous.”
But when it came to the apparent source of that money – Karni’s job – he was almost entirely close-mouthed, said several community members, including those who have known him for nearly two decades. “I’ve only known him from the shul, but he seems to be a man of high integrity,” said Rabbi Jonathan Altman, who has led the Morasha synagogue for two years. “I have no idea about his business, I have no idea about his personal life. His business activities were very separate from his synagogue involvement.”
Altman and others said people who knew Karni were shocked by the allegations against him, and that the topic has become a major focus of conversation. On the day of Karni’s first hearing in the U.S. in January, some members of the synagogue even called for a communal day of fasting and prayer on Karni’s behalf, said Altman. He said he told them they could fast if they wanted to but that he would not declare a community fast day “under these circumstances.”
At least one Cape Town resident, though, has trouble reconciling the news reports she has read about Karni with the support he’s getting from the religious Jewish community. Another said she found it strange that people are so willing to donate their money to Karni, saying they believe in him as though he were a god.
How much did Karni know?
Much of the support shown by Karni’s friends seems to rest on their conviction that while he may have technically committed a crime, such as a license violation, he remains clean on the moral count.
Asher Karni could be convicted for sending the triggered spark gaps to Pakistan without an export license regardless of whether or not he was aware of all their uses. He maintains that he did not know about the nuclear capabilities of the devices when he made the deal, attorney Lewin confirmed.
“He didn’t have the slightest idea that this had any other usage,” said Rabbi Kraz. “How was he supposed to know he was in the middle of a sting operation? At what point is a businessman supposed to ask questions?”
Indeed, representatives of three American companies that sell triggered spark gaps said separately that even a person who, like Karni, has been selling electronics for commercial and military industrial use for more than a decade, would not necessarily have any reason to suspect that spark gaps can be used to detonate nuclear devices.
“Especially in the nuclear industry, everything is kept pretty well tight-lipped,” said an application engineer at the upstate New York-based Magnavolt Technologies, which sells high-power spark gap switches, among other electronic devices. Regarding knowledge of spark gaps’ nuclear uses, he said: “It’s not common knowledge, it’s not something the public would know or electrical equipment suppliers would know. It’s usually the scientists [who know].”
However, that view is not shared by everyone in the electronics industry. The nuclear capability of triggered spark gaps is “absolutely” common knowledge within the field, an American professional familiar with the industry said on condition of anonymity. “Any switch can be used to detonate [a nuclear device]. There are all kinds of switches; spark gaps are one of them.”
Indeed, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Bratt argued in court documents that Karni must have known his Pakistani contact had ties to the Pakistani military, saying Humayun Khan had asked Karni to buy infrared sensors for missiles that are used on F-16 fighter planes.
While it is unclear whether the deal for the sensors went through, another deal that apparently was completed was Khan’s request for a sophisticated oscilloscope, a measuring device that can be used in nuclear weapons programs. Court records indicate that Karni was apparently planning to cover up the shipping trail. He e-mailed Giza Technologies in August to say he had a “new project,” writing: “It is very important that they will not know it is coming to S.A. [South Africa].” Prosecutors said they found the e-mails while searching a laptop computer and six computer discs Karni had with him when he was arrested.
In a telephone interview with Haaretz, Humayun Khan has confirmed that he supplies electronic equipment to the Pakistani military, among other clients, but insisted he had not been involved in the effort to smuggle the spark gaps to Pakistan, saying he could not have remained in Pakistan if he were buying nuclear components. Khan said he was having difficulty proving his innocence because a virus has deleted all the documents from his computer, according to news reports.
Khan told Haaretz he initiated contact with Karni via the Internet in July 2002, before the latter was dismissed from Eagle Technology. At the time, said Khan, he had no idea Karni was Israeli, or he wouldn’t have done business with him. After Khan saw Karni’s Top-Cape Web site, which makes reference to Karni’s studies in Israel, Khan said he cut off all ties. Khan also denied any link to an Islamic underground group in Kashmir, saying he wasn’t a radical Muslim, and didn’t even have a beard. Khan has told The Associated Press that Karni told him he was Palestinian.
Khan has said all the devices he tried to buy were for civilian companies, though American nonproliferation experts said the items also had military applications. But Khan also reportedly said he had contacted Karni to buy several pieces of American-made equipment that could not be used to make nuclear or other weapons. Indeed, Kraz said Karni told him that he had already carried out two previous business deals with his contact in Pakistan for electrical equipment and “there was no problem.”
The court documents indicating that the triggered spark gaps may be only a small portion of illegal exports in which Karni participated may make it far more difficult for Karni to plead ignorance. Court files include e-mail exchanges between Karni and an Indian businessman, Raghavendra “Ragu” Rao, who was trying secretly to buy material for two Indian rocket factories.
Rao’s e-mails from India ask Karni to get three kinds of high-tech equipment and to conceal their intended final destinations: two rocket labs (the U.S. restricts exports to this type of facility). Rao reportedly denies the charge. According to reports about the court records, an August 2002 e-mail from Rao to Karni warns Karni not to indicate that an accelerometer was being sent to one of the labs, since its export is restricted due to its “possibility of being used in guidance systems for missiles.” Rao wrote, “Be careful to avoid any reference to the customer name.”
But even if Karni is convicted, his supporters may continue to remain by his side. Kraz, the rabbi in charge of supervising Karni if he is let out of jail, complained that the post-September 11 atmosphere in America has effectively reversed the dictum of “innocent until proven guilty,” and said even a conviction could leave room for doubt. “Being convicted doesn’t always mean 100 percent guilty,” he said. “It sometimes means you fall between the technicalities, the whims of a judge.”
A South African friend of Karni’s who has been active in trying to help him since the arrest said he would not have assisted anyone he suspected had knowingly sent nuclear weapons components to Pakistan. “If I really thought he was guilty, I wouldn’t want to be helping him, and I wouldn’t be supporting him,” said the friend, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “All those of us who know Asher believe there has been a misunderstanding somewhere along the way.”
Encapsulating the attitude of several of Karni’s friends, Stan Kahn refused to consider the possibility that Karni could completely separate his business ethics from the values he has demonstrated in personal and religious life. “He was honest, he was very highly principled, and none of us can really believe that he would go into something to his detriment or to the detriment of Israel or South Africa,” said Kahn. “We cannot believe that he would be two different kinds of people.”
On the other hand, diverse motivations can come into play in cases like these. “People who do this – I’ve interviewed several such people – convince themselves that it’s not such a terrible act,” said David Albright, president and founder of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Science and International Security. “They tell themselves, for example, that in any case the country that bought the equipment from them will not be able to actually build atomic weapons, so there’s no real problem.”
However, “the lure of money is at the heart of illicit procurement activities and is the grease that makes such deals happen,” said Albright.n