CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- The former commander of South Africa's most important military installation was sentenced today to life in prison for selling secrets to the Soviet Union for almost a decade.
Dieter Gerhardt, 48, one of South Africa's most senior military officers, was convicted Thursday of high treason and had faced a maximum penalty of death by hanging.
His Swiss-born wife, Ruth, 41, who was also convicted of high treason, was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment.
The German-born Gerhardt, former commander of the strategic Simonstown Naval base, was arrested last January and charged with selling military secrets to the Soviets since 1964.
The lengthy indictment included charges of establishing and maintaining a secret communications network with Soviet agents.
The Gerhardts' lawyers said they would appeal their convictions, the South African Broadcasting Corporation reported.
As commanding officer of Simonstown, near the vital Cape of Good Hope sea route used by NATO for two-thirds of its oil imports, Gerhardt had accessto sensitive information critical to Western defense planning, military sources said.
'Such information would be damaging to the whole Western interests,' Admiral of the British Fleet, Lord Hill-Norton said in London.
The conviction of Gerhardt was the first of a serving South African officer since a citizens force captain was found guilty of high treason in 1914.
Recent reports have linked Gerhardt with spying on the British Fleet during the Falklands War and relaying the information through Moscow to Argentina.
Reports also said he spied for the Soviets while serving as a South African naval attache in Britain in the 1960s. A member of Britain's Parliament this week asked Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to determime whether Gerhardt's activities in Britain had compromised British security.
Sources also said Gerhardt was in a position to inform the Soviet Union on the top-secret Silvermine computer tracking system near Cape Town that monitors all shipping in the South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean.
Gerhardt claimed he served as a double agent for an unnamed country not hostile to South Africa. He said that country instructed him to supply information to the Soviets to gauge their interest in South Africa. He said he began supplying such information in 1964.
Mrs. Gerhardt said she at first believed her husband was engaged in counter-espionage for South Africa, but began to doubt this in 1980. She said she continued assisting him after he threatened her and her child with violence.