An international fugitive sought for shipping 90 tons of mustard gas ingredients from Baltimore to Iran has again eluded U.S. justice -- this time by winning release from a Croatian prison.
In a phone interview yesterday from the Far Trade shipping company in his native Germany, a jovial Peter Walaschek had a message for U.S. authorities: Better luck next time.
"Tell Dennis Bass to give me a call," Walaschek said from Bonn, referring to the Baltimore-based U.S. Customs investigator who built the case against him in 1989. "Tell him we should have a talk, and that if he ever comes to Germany, we simply must get together for a drink."
The Croatian Supreme Court refused to extradite Walaschek -- a flashy exporter who had been held in that country since his arrest on an Interpol warrant in November -- and sent him home to Germany Thursday.
Walaschek, 52, has a haven there because German officials are not required to extradite their own citizens. In the United States, Walaschek would face at least 10 years in prison.
"It's very pleasant in Germany. As much as I enjoyed Baltimore and its beautiful harborside, I didn't like the prison there," Walaschek said with a laugh.
Walaschek created an international furor six years ago when he pleaded guilty in Baltimore to selling chemical warfare components to the Iranians, shortly after thousands of people were killed by mustard gas in the Iran-Iraq war. He fled the United States while awaiting sentencing.
Yesterday, Agent Bass reacted with shock when a reporter told him that the Croatians had released Walaschek.
"I really thought we had him this time," Agent Bass said. "It's very distressing. I would have thought the government over there would have let us know that they released him."
Agent Bass refused to respond to Walaschek's taunts, saying only, "It's just part of the continuing saga of Peter Walaschek. This whole thing is unbelievable."
The Croatian Supreme Court has not released a statement spelling out the grounds for allowing Walaschek to go free. But Vladimir Rubcic, Walaschek's court-appointed attorney in the Croatian capital, Zagreb, said the United States had shaky grounds for extradition.
Noting that the extradition treaty in force in Croatia was signed by the United States and Serbia's king in 1901, Mr. Rubcic said, "This is absurd. We're practically in a state of war with Serbia, and we are applying this old agreement with the king of Serbia."
The treaty -- even if considered valid -- did not mention chemical-exporting crimes and therefore left officials without power to extradite Walaschek, Mr. Rubcic said.
In 1988, Walaschek, who travels the world in search of exporting bargains, arranged with Alcolac Inc., a chemical manufacturer in Fairfield, in South Baltimore, to ship large quantities of thiodiglycol to Iran.
Thiodiglycol, commonly used in making dyes and inks, is also the main ingredient in mustard gas. The United States bans its sale to Iran and Iraq.
But Walaschek devised a scheme to transport the chemical through the Mediterranean and Singapore to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas.
Alcolac later pleaded guilty to a criminal charge of violating export law and was fined $438,000. But Walaschek remained at large.
Yesterday, he said the United States was improperly characterizing him as "an arch-criminal."
"I believe [the Iranians] did not use my shipments for chemical warfare, nor did I think they were going to," Walaschek said. "I went to Tehran shortly after I left the U.S. and visited the factory where my chemical drums were. They were making textiles, nothing else."
Authorities in Croatia arrested Walaschek in November after spotting his name in the guest book at Zagreb's grand old Esplanade Hotel, which is favored by high-rolling businessmen and diplomats.
His name was spotted largely because of the atmosphere that has developed in Zagreb from the presence of so many international arms dealers, including some from Iran and Iraq, said Mladen Vulinec, an Interpol agent in Croatia.
Since losing its 1991 war against Serbia and the Yugoslav People's Army, Croatia has been frantically buying weapons to prepare for a possible rematch, in spite of the international arms embargo covering the former Yugoslavia.
Walaschek said that he was in Zagreb at the invitation of the Croatian Health Ministry and that he intended to deliver medical supplies to humanitarian groups. He denied being in Croatia as an arms dealer.
"There's been much suspicion surrounding me. But I'm just a pharmacist, and I was here to help by delivering health supplies," he said.
Walaschek said he continues to work as an international exporter but that he has had to curb his travels since being put on Interpol's wanted list.
"I still have two countries I can go -- Iran and Croatia," he said.
Walaschek's release isn't the first time that a suspected chemical warfare exporter has slipped through the fingers of U.S. officials.
In 1989, Frans Van Amraat, a Dutch national who bought thiodiglycol from Alcolac and is alleged to have shipped it to Iraq, was released after Italian authorities refused to extradite him. U.S. authorities last heard that he had moved to Baghdad and was living in the Al Rashid Hotel.
As for snaring Walaschek, U.S. authorities must make a fresh start.
Meanwhile, he is asking prosecutors and customs agents to come over and drink with him at Oktoberfest. "They should lighten up and realize they are not the police of the world," he said.