VIENNA, FEB. 1 -- Fourteen former executives of Austria's state-owned industrial sector were convicted today of violating neutrality laws by selling arms to Iran during its eight-year war with Iraq.
The verdicts came amid international debate about weapons sales to Middle Eastern nations, including Iraq.
Austrian sales to Iraq are the subject of a separate investigation.
During the 10-month trial, the largest in Austria since World War II, the defense argued that the shipments were made with government knowledge. Defense attorneys also cited evidence that 200 artillery pieces, sold to Jordan with Vienna's approval in 1981, had ended up in Iraq. The Iran-Iraq war ended in a cease-fire in 1988.
The laws of neutral Austria prohibit weapons sales to states at war.
The former executives were sentenced to up to 2 1/2 years' imprisonment. Austrian state television reported, however, that portions of some terms were suspended and that none of the defendants will be required to spend more than a year in jail. Four other former executives were acquitted of the charges.
Former chancellor Fred Sinowatz is due to go on trial soon, along with his former ministers for foreign affairs and interior, on charges of misuse of office for failing to halt the illegal shipments to Iran after learning about them. The former officials also are charged with covering up the sales.
During the trial, the defense contended that the illegal sales proceeded with the knowledge of Socialist former chancellor Bruno Kreisky, who sought to avert job losses in state industry. Kreisky, who left office in 1983, denied the allegation shortly before his death last July.
The weaponry sold to Iran was described as 200 GHN-45 cannons -- developed by Canadian-born scientist Gerald Bull, who was assassinated in Brussels last March -- along with tens of thousands of shells. According to trial testimony, Bull had plans to design a cannon for Iraq with a range of up to 900 miles.
Among those convicted in Linz District Court were the Noricum arms company's former general manager, Peter Unterweger; its former sales chief, Johann Eisenburger; and former finance manager Gerald Wicher. Also convicted was Peter Strahammer, former board chairman of VOEST, Austria's largest state-held industry. Noricum was part of VOEST at the time.
The trial followed a five-month parliamentary inquiry into the shipments -- sent to Iran through third countries, including Libya -- in 1985 and 1986. "With these weapons, Austria sold its honor," state prosecutor Siegfried Sittenthaler told the court when the trial began April 4.
The United States warned the Sinowatz government 10 times in 1986 about the illegal shipments to Iran, the former Austrian ambassador to Washington, Thomas Klestil, told the inquiry. Klestil testified that the State Department presented him with CIA satellite photographs of GHN-45 cannons in Iran.
In a separate development today, the Iraqi ambassador to the United States, Mohamed Mashat, dismissed reports that he had asked for political asylum in Austria, saying he is here temporarily while his wife goes medical treatment for an unspecified illness.
He said his wife became ill while they were traveling from Washington to Baghdad more than a week ago after he had been recalled to the Iraqi capital for consultations. Mashat termed the reports the "wishful thinking of people who call themselves the opposition."
Foreign Minister Alois Mock told parliament Wednesday that Austria planned to provide humanitarian aid to Israel. The move would represent the first direct financial support by Vienna to the Jewish state, the ministry said. No sum has been announced.