JAN 13, 2001

The Straits Times, Singapore
Cancer-causing uranium used on dissidents

Documents unearthed from the former East German secret service show that lethal doses were used on their targets and even Western diplomats

By R. Senthilnathan

SOME former Eastern European communist countries have used cancer-causing depleted uranium as a weapon systematically to spy on, perhaps even poison their opponents.

The communist governments used the radioactive materials, fully aware of the effects of high, lethal doses on their targets who were mainly dissidents and even Western diplomats.

Until recently, the use of radiation as a weapon by the Eastern Bloc was only suspected. There had been reports, for instance, that the KGB, the former Soviet Union's secret service, used radioactive material on the shoes of Moscow based US diplomats to trace them.

Similarly, it was also suspected that Securitate, KGB's Romanian Counterpart, used radiation sources obtained from the Soviets to kill a runaway Russian spy and several Romanian dissidents between 1965 and 1988.

However, documents unearthed from the Berlin head office of the former East German secret service, Stasi, prove that radioactive material was used to mark and monitor dissidents.

The documents show that the communist authorities allowed the country's dissidents to be subjected to 150 times the allowed radiation doses, says Dr Klaus Becker, vice president of Radiation, Science and Health (RSH), a US based non-profit organisation campaigning for objective information on radiation.

Writing in the German language journal, Radiation Protection Practice, Dr Becker, a former director of the German Nuclear Standards Committee, said that up to 150 milli Sieverts (mSv) were sanctioned 'per action'.

Sievert is the unit used to measure biological damage from radiation. The Stockholm-based International Commission on Radiation Protection (ICRP), which issues radiation protection guidelines, recommends a dose of one mSv per year. Recommended doses for those working with radioactive material, such as nuclear plant workers, are higher, but only for shorter periods of time.

Most people receive radiation from natural sources amounting to 2.4 mSv per year, but it could be as high as 50 mSv in some places.

According to the Uranium Information Centre in Australia, the probability of cancer occurring increases above 50 mSv per year.

The Stasi documents show that East German spies were trained to 'mark' meeting rooms, banknotes, cloths, purses and even pins with radioactive material to monitor dissidents.

In one incident, they contaminated the belongings of a twin-sister pair. One of them was to travel to West Germany and they were suspected of switching passports to enable the other sister, married to a high-ranking communist official, to escape to the West.

The Stasi had also contaminated the manuscripts of the well-known dissident writer, Rudolf Bahro, to find out who gets them and who, or rather who does not, hand them over to the government.

To keep tabs on those who have been 'marked' without arousing suspicions, the Stasi came up with a modified version of the Geiger counter, used to detect and measure radiation, in 1975. Placed inside a jacket, this modified version vibrates, rather than beeps, when it detects radiation nearby.

The East German authorities also used radiation screening at border stations to detect refugees hidden in cars.

While they infected their opponents with radiation doses, the agents themselves were given training to protect themselves, according to Dr Becker.

However, there were no proof that jailed dissidents were subjected to lethal doses of radiation.

Suspicions that the Stasi may have directly bombarded opponents with high doses arose after X-ray units were found in some prisons hidden behind rooms where dissidents were photographed and after the cancer-related deaths of some prominent dissidents, including Mr Bahro, who died of lymph cancer in 1997, 18 years after his expulsion from East Germany.

Two of his friends who were imprisoned in the same Berlin prison also died of cancer. One of them, the writer Juergen Fuchs, claimed that he was subjected to prolonged photographing sessions.

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