Interviews

MAJOR JAN RATHAUSKY was the lead Czech detective in the 1994 Prague nuclear smuggling case which involved six pounds of highly enriched uranium. He had worked his way up the squad ranks specializing in Communist-era white collar crime, which was mostly tax evasion. These days, his typical cases involve stolen autos. When he was assigned to the Prague case he was faced with an area of crime which he had never before encountered.

This interview was conducted in 1996.


Q: How did you go about your investigation? Who were the first people that you talked to, and the questions you asked?

RATHAUSKY: I`ll start from the beginning. On the 14th of December, 1994, police received an anonymous phone call, it was a female voice, speaking in poor Czech. That voice stated, some time in that afternoon - the exact time was given - transfer of nuclear material would take place.

She even gave the location. But the phone call arrived quite late, so despite a quick response from the police at that location, not all the individuals were apprehended; only three were taken into custody. They are currently - under investigation and in custody.

One of them is Czech, one Russian and one from Belarus. These people were arrested while transferring...they rode in a passenger car, and they had with them two metal containers in which we later found just less than 3 kilograms of highly enriched uranium. I started to investigate these three men, I've been interrogating them, of course. All three initially denied that they even knew that they had these two containers in their car.

They pretended great surprise at how those containers appeared. They denied any participation in this matter. "None of them did not know about anything."

Q: But they were found in a car with the containers? Right?

RATHAUSKY: Yes. Of course.

Q: But they were still denying that.

RATHAUSKY: Of course. (laughter). One of these men, the Czech, he gave us five variations on possible ways these containers got there, because it was his car. Five different alternatives as to how these containers "probably" got to him. Well, all of them were quite ridiculous. So I gradually and continuously interrogated these suspects until I managed to develop very good communication with one of them. It was the Russian who decided to speak about the matter. And basically through him I managed to unmask the entire group - though one can't refer but just to one group, because there were several groups - but basically I managed to unmask these groups and their activities, both in this country and even abroad.

Basically it is thanks to this one man that I managed to achieve this.

Q: And why do you think he is the one who finally started talking to you?

RATHAUSKY: I think he started to talk because first of all he had big debts in Russia. He owed a lot of money there and the interest rates that they have there - thanks to their laws - he realized the interest was piling daily into horrendous sums. He realized that under the conditions there, he's not able to pay his debts. It's out of the question. We apprehended several messages secretly sent to him from the outside while he was in jail. I have no illusions that we have caught all of them, but we understood from these messages that there's a certain group of people who keep him informed of what's going on outside. And they indicated to him that they would make sure that they got him out of jail. So, I think that he feared - and he still fears - that he might end up in a Russian prison. He was quite terrified of such a prospect.

He is a person who is very trusting, very naive, a special kind of person. In my view he doesn't fit into these times. He fits more into the 18th century or something like that.

But he decided he would buy cars in Germany. He got a loan from a bank in Russia, a relatively sizable one. He left for Germany where he bought 2 Porches and some other pricey models. He got them into Russia and then, of course, he wanted to sell them, so he could repay the loan and make something for himself. So he bought these cars, without knowing if someone would buy from him. All of a sudden, he brought the cars there, and there was no buyer. OK? Now he had cars and a debt. And that was the end. The bank suddenly started to demand its money.

So his debt started to pile up and he was unable to find money, and during that time a certain Mr. Baranov approached him and offered to help him get rid of his problem, this debt. If he would deliver to this country this uranium. He also specified at what price he was to sell it - and he could add something on top of that, so he should be able to pay off his debt.

Initially he refused to do it. He simply said he doesn't want to have anything to do with it.

But his situation started to get worse - so far that he really didn't know which way to go. And then he went to see this Baranov and told him he accepted the proposal, that he'd do it. After that, Baranov gave him the two containers and, with assistance of one Czech, who was that time in Belarus - while traveling by train, they brought this material to Prague.

Q: When he imported the cars he had no buyer and from what I understand when he took this uranium also there was no buyer at that moment.

RATHAUSKY: It's exactly the same thing. As I've said, he is a very naive person. He arrived, actually a Czech, who was that time in Russia, brought him here. The Czech was already interested in these kind of things. But he himself, he just wanted a commission, he helped him to bring those two containers. The Czech put him up at his place - in his office, not at his home - and told him he would somehow help him find a buyer for this stuff. With the understanding that Scherbinin would give him a cut. So the Russian arrived here, brought with him two containers of highly enriched uranium, without knowing at all if he'd find any buyer here. He came just like that, as we say "as a blind man".

Q: Do you have any idea where the uranium came from in the first place?

RATHAUSKY: Well, we probably know where it came from. But the problem is that unfortunately, our Russian counterparts are not cooperating with us on this case very well; practically, they have no comment. So, this is more or less our speculation where this uranium came from. I believe our idea as far as the origin is on the mark, since we don't have it confirmed, we cannot say that it comes from the place that we think it's coming from.

Q: But where you think it comes from is because of where Scherbinin and Baranov lived ... or live?

RATHAUSKY: We think so.

Q: Tell me about your interrogation of Baranov.

RATHAUSKY: We requested information about the individuals we knew about the time; later we learned about other individuals. Initially the Russians did not respond to our request at all.

They, they assumed the "dead beetle" posture - played dead - and simply... nothing.

And all of a sudden what they did - how to best say it? - they decided the best defense is an offense. Suddenly they sent us a request for legal assistance, asking to interrogate the people here. OK. Even though a long time before, we had asked them and they never reacted. And suddenly they did it the other way around asked us. So, I said to myself, OK ... despite the fact that it was me who asked for help first, I would do them a favor and make it possible for them to do certain things here that they need, then I hope they will allow me the same. So we gave them permission. And again nothing. Completely quiet. Then suddenly a telephone call and they said, we're here. I was shocked, because I also had some assignments on deadline, I had things to get done and they said "we are here" and "you take care of us". Nonetheless, I managed to coordinate this somehow, maybe not everything that they wanted - because they subsequently wanted things that under any circumstances we could not do for them.

Q: For example, what kind of things?

RATHAUSKY: For example, they asked for a photocopy of our file, they wanted documents, all documents, photographs of all the people, that's simply not possible. It's not customary, no one asks for these kind of things. They presented it from the position of the stronger one, like I am suddenly somehow subordinate to them and that I must do things. So we talked for a long time here, always arguing. I told them, look, there are things that I can offer you, but there are some that I cannot. It cannot be done this way. So they left.

They left and again nothing happened. As it is in that movie " Moscow Keeps Silent", Moscow was silent. So we sort of gave up on it, we said, that's the end of it. Then, all of a sudden, a fax arrived with "Dates when you can come over". And they put me in the situation where I had nothing prepared. I tried to convince my higher ups that we might lose the opportunity, so everything was prepared in a hurry and we flew to Moscow. Over there they had allowed me to interrogate Baranov and the other three people; the interrogation took place in an office of their agency. For me, it was hard to comprehend that, although Baranov was in front of me and in front of them.

Although this gentlemen admitted that he was in possession of the material for more than half a year and that he then offered it to the person who brought it here, the Russian police didn't do anything. They did not respond. Although they knew about it, they have known about it for a long time, they don't prosecute them. I don't understand it, it's beyond my comprehension.

On the question of where it comes from or from whom he got it he said "I will not answer that". This second question did not affect me that much, it was more for them. But it was not of much of interest to them either, as far as I could see, so.. that's how those interrogations over there happened.

Q: Baranov would not tell you who gave him the uranium or where it came from.

RATHAUSKY: No. No, he refused to answer that.

Q: And the Russians did not ask him?

RATHAUSKY: No.

Q: That seems very surprising.

RATHAUSKY: For me it was quite a surprise, because I thought that regardless of the country where the police works, I thought that this should be of interest to police in every country to solve these kind of things. But unfortunately, the interest is not that great over there. They even - one can say - partially deny the fact that this material might be of Russian origin.

Well, you know, I was under the impression - and I still am under the impression - that they would be most happy if this material would disappear from the Czech Republic. They might perhaps perform the analysis, then they might not. It really doesn't matter. To make it short, they would say "It does not come from us" and "All this affair is a fraud" and "God knows where this material came from." One can seen that they have no interest in solving this problem.

Q: What was Mr. Russian, Scherbinin doing during all of this time?

RATHAUSKY: As far as Scherbinin was concerned... First of all, Scherbinin did not understand Czech. He did not understand German. So although the Czech side always brought him to the negotiations as a sort of guarantor, as the owner of the material. But he never participated in those negotiations because he did not know what was being discussed. And the price was actually set by the Czech side, not by him. He said: "I have to give them back home $800 a gram, plus I want something for myself," since he needed to pay off his debt in Moscow, or Russia. So he asked for a certain sum of money, but the final sum for which it would be sold, that was set by the Czech side. He was actually only present as they brought him along and said: This is the man who has the uranium, he's the owner. But because he didn't understand the language and nobody was translating for him, he was just sitting at those meetings and waiting to see what happened. He was dependent on what he would be told by the others, how the negotiations went. So he had no idea if the negotiations were positive or negative or at what price it's being offered. He didn't know that at all. He was just there.

Q: And, when you questioned Mr. Baranov, would he tell you where he actually got the uranium? Who gave it to him? Who stole it from what place?

RATHAUSKY: When I was interrogating Baranov he only told me that he kept the material with him for a half year or longer ... that he took advantage of Scherbinin's financial crisis, as he knew that Scherbinin was deeply in debt... And he proposed to Scherbinin that he bring the material here.

Besides this, Mr. Baranov refused to answer my question about where he got the material from and what other people were involved... It's clear someone had to give him that material. He refused to answer that. Unfortunately the Russian investigators did not react at all, they did not ask him about that, they released Baranov after the interrogation. They let him go and Baranov returned home. Where this material is from or who gave it to Baranov, I don't know. But I think, for me it's not so important where this material is from, it should be important to the Russians, but as one can see...they are not probably interested.

Q: I have heard and even read in one report that the 3 kilograms of uranium were part of a larger amount, that as much as 10 kilograms was stolen.

RATHAUSKY: From my interrogations we found out that Russians were able to deliver every month 5 kilograms of this material. They even promised that they were able immediately deliver 40 kilograms as a one-time shipment. Then, subsequently, if one can believe it... they said it's possible to get up to one ton. But the question is, can one believe that? But they said it. I know just about this, but I don't know that this was taken from some larger shipment. What I've verified is that the deal was about these 3 kilograms. Subsequently they said they were able to bring in 5 kilograms, to deliver 5 kilos every month. But other than that, I don't know.

Q: During this investigation, would you suddenly think that it's all too absurd to be a true story?

RATHAUSKY: To tell you the truth, sometimes I stopped believing what I was learning, especially concerning Scherbinin. Those were some stories! I told myself it cannot be possible!

But on the other hand when he later, and on his own, voluntarily proposed that he'd show me the places where he was, then showed me everything in detail... And in following up the interrogations of the other people, the truthfulness of what Scherbinin was telling me was confirmed, then, then I had to sort of give in and I told myself, unfortunately, that's really how it is.

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