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A court Wednesday convicted a West German industrialist of helping Libya build a plant that Western officials say was intended to produce poison gas.

Juergen Hippenstiel-Imhausen, described by prosecutors as a "merchant of death," was found guilty of violating export laws and tax evasion. He was sentenced to five years in prison for his involvement in construction of the widely publicized plant in the Libyan city of Rabta, south of Tripoli.Libya has said the Rabta plant was intended for producing pharmaceuticals, but U.S. and West German officials have said it was built to manufacture chemical weapons.

Chief Judge Juergen Henniger said that based on expert witness testimony, the state court concluded the plant was "clearly intended for the production of chemical warfare agents," including mustard gas and other poison gases.

Henniger said that Hippenstiel-Immhausen also was aware of the plant's purpose even before he signed the contract in 1984 to build it for Libya's leader, Col. Moammar Gadhafi.

As the verdict was read, the pale, bespectacled Hippenstiel-Immhausen often sat with his head in his hands, leaning toward the table in front of him.

Hippenstiel-Imhausen, 49, admitted at his trial earlier this month that he helped build the chemical plant while he headed the Imhausen-Chemie company of Lahr, a southwestern city near Mannheim.

The case was a major embarrassment for the West German government, which initially denied that West German firms were involved in the project. West German law forbids the export of technology or material that could be used in conflict areas such as the Middle East.

Henninger sentenced the defendant to the maximum three years for violation of export laws and four years for tax evasion. But he then reduced the combined sentence to five years because Hippenstiel-Imhausen had shown remorse for his actions and admitted his role.

The ruling followed an 11-day trial, one of the most heavily publicized business trials in West German history.

Hippenstiel-Imhausen said in court June 13 that he had suspicions the project "would be in conflict with West Germany's export laws" but did not investigate because he "didn't want to lose the business."