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Pakistan civil society pays tribute to nuclear proliferator, smuggler

The 'hero' of Pakistan Abdul Qadeer Khan was indicted by the US and the EU while Iran and Libya named him as their supplier when pressured

The members of Shura Hamdard Karachi Chapter, Pakistan, paid glowing tributes to notorious nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, who had infamously smuggled fissile material and knowhow of atomic bombs to North Korea, in a seminar on 26 November. Known locally as the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme, the late smuggler was hailed in an event that carried a tagline: “Seldom is the one with a true vision born in the garden.”

Remembering the ‘accomplishments’ and ‘national services’ of Khan at Hamdard Corporate Head Office. President Hamdard Foundation Pakistan Sadia Rashid played glowing tributes to him at the meeting.

Smuggler from Pakistan

In the 1970s, Khan had been very vocal about establishing a network to acquire imported electronic materials from Dutch firms. He had little faith in PAEC’s capability of domestic manufacturing of materials, despite the government accepting PAEC’s arguments for the long term sustainability of the nuclear weapons programme.

At one point, Khan reached out to China for acquiring the uranium hexafluoride (UF6) when he attended a conference there. The Pakistani Government sent it back to the People’s Republic of China, asking KRL to use the UF6 supplied by PAEC.

This shady past of Khan notwithstanding, the Karachi civil society yesterday remembered Khan fondly as a “humanitarian” and “kind-hearted person” with immense love for the nation and a devoted Pakistani patriot. Speaker of the NGO Justice (retd) Haziq-ul-Khairi, who presided over the meeting, said: “A strong-willed individual, founder of Pakistan’s nuclear and missile program, Dr Qadeer’s contributions to Pakistan will always be etched in our memory. His sudden demise was a great loss to all of us.”

In 1982, an unnamed Arab country reached out to Khan for the sale of centrifuge technology. Khan was very receptive to the financial offer, but one scientist alerted the Zia administration which investigated the matter, only for Khan to vehemently deny such an offer was made to him. The Zia administration tasked Major-General Ali Nawab, an engineering officer, to keep surveillance on Khan, which he did until 1983 when he retired from his military service, and Khan’s activities went undetected for several years after.

American objections and legal hassles

In 1979, the Dutch government eventually probed Khan on suspicion of nuclear espionage but he was not prosecuted due to lack of evidence, though it did file a criminal complaint against him in a local court in Amsterdam, which sentenced him in absentia in 1985 to four years in prison.

Upon learning of the sentence, Khan filed an appeal through his attorney, SM Zafar, who teamed up with the administration of Leuven University, and successfully argued that the technical information requested by Khan was commonly found and taught in undergraduate and doctoral physics at the university. The court exonerated Khan by overturning his sentence on a legal technicality. Reacting to the suspicions of espionage, Khan stressed that: “I had requested for it as we had no library of our own at KRL, at that time. All the research work [at Kahuta] was the result of our innovation and struggle. We did not receive any technical ‘know-how’ from abroad, but we cannot reject the use of books, magazines, and research papers in this connection.”

In 1979, the Zia administration, which was making an effort to keep their nuclear capability discreet to avoid pressure from the Reagan administration of the US, nearly lost its patience with Khan when he reportedly attempted to meet with a local journalist to announce the existence of the enrichment programme.

Nevertheless, recalling the dubious Islamic bomb, the retired judge recalled how the Muslim world was jubilant over Pakistan becoming the first Muslim country to acquire nuclear power status. “Random strangers in Muslim countries were congratulating Pakistanis. Dr Qadeer made such a remarkable moment of pride possible for all Pakistanis. For that we owed him gratitude,” he said.

Prominent business leader of Pakistan Sultan Ahmed Chawla said: “Remembering Dr Qadeer and his invaluable services to the nation as a nuclear scientist and a proactive social worker. His vision and leadership will continue to guide us. He was a selfless, down-to-earth person and the epitome of wisdom and hard work.” What that “hard work” was is explained in the following of paragraphs.

During the Indian Operation Brasstacks military exercise in 1987, Khan gave another interview to the local press and stated, “The Americans had been well aware of the success of the atomic quest of Pakistan”, allegedly confirming the speculation of technology export. In both instances, the Zia administration sharply denied Khan’s statement and a furious President Zia met with Khan and used a “tough tone”, promising Khan severe repercussions had he not retracted all of his statements, which Khan immediately did by contacting several news correspondents.

In 1996, Khan again appeared on his country’s news channels and maintained that “at no stage was the programme of producing 90% weapons-grade enriched uranium ever stopped”, despite Benazir Bhutto’s administration reaching an understanding with the United States Clinton administration to cap the programme to 3% enrichment in 1990.

Keeping such notoriety aside, Abdul Haseeb Khan said during the Karachi event, “Few Pakistanis in the 21st century enjoyed the kind of popular support and admiration experienced by Dr Qadeer evidenced by the unanimous backing of the general public on his social work initiatives. Born in Bhopal in 1931, Dr Qadeer was a true Pakistani from his heart. He always encouraged patriotism in young people and genuinely believed Pakistan could be a superpower.”

Smuggling to North Korea, Iran, Libya

That “superpower” status was sought to be achieved by the innovation and improved designs of centrifuges that were marked as classified for export restriction by the Pakistan government, though Khan was still in possession of earlier designs of centrifuges from when he worked for Urenco Group in the 1970s.

Whitewashing Khan’s criminality, Musarat Akram said, “He was a distinguished scientist, a visionary patriot and above all a great human being. His stellar contribution strengthened our defence capabilities. He is a source of inspiration for all of us. He dedicated his life to making Pakistan strong, prosperous, and capable.”

Of course, Khan alternately passed the buck to the Pakistan government and took the blame upon himself. For example, in 1990, the US alleged that highly sensitive information was being exported to North Korea in exchange for rocket engines. On multiple occasions, Khan accused Benazir Bhutto’s administration of providing secret enrichment information, on a compact disc (CD), to North Korea; these accusations were denied by Benazir Bhutto’s staff and military personnel.

Between 1987 and 1989, Khan secretly leaked knowledge of centrifuges to Iran without notifying the Pakistan government, although this issue is a subject of political controversy.

However, Dr Rizwana Ansari said in Karachi yesterday, “Renowned for his accomplishments in the field of science and technology and referred to as the father of Pakistan’s atom bomb, he endeared himself to the masses through his simplicity, humility, and his humanitarian outlook.” She also urged the government to launch a scholarship programme to honour Khan. Scholarship in the name of a proven thief? Well, another eminent Pakistani demanded a university too.

Dr Tanveer Khalid said at the Karachi seminar, “Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan dedicated his entire life serving his motherland. His contributions will never be forgotten. Chairs must be established in universities in the name of Dr Qadeer.”

Security hearings, pardon, aftermath

Here are the institutional entities that pronounced Khan as a smuggler: While Khan served as an adviser on science and technology in the Musharraf administration and had become a public figure who enjoyed much support from his country’s political conservative sphere, starting in 2001, the European Union in 2003 pressured Iran to accept tougher inspections of its nuclear programme and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) revealed an enrichment facility in the city of Natanz, Iran, utilising gas centrifuges based on the designs and methods used by Urenco Group. The IAEA inspectors quickly identified the centrifuges as P-1 types, which had been obtained “from a foreign intermediary in 1989”, and the Iranian negotiators turned over the names of their suppliers, which identified Khan as one of them.

In 2003, Libya negotiated with the US to roll back its nuclear programme to have economic sanctions lifted, effected by the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act, and shipped centrifuges to the US that were identified as P-1 models by the American inspectors. Ultimately, the Bush administration launched its investigation of Khan, focusing on his personal role, when Libya handed over a list of its suppliers.

Yet Safia Malik said yesterday, “Nation must pay tribute to Dr Qadeer by realising his dream of a self-reliant and strong nation.”

Zafar Iqbal said, “Because of Dr Qadeer, Pakistan is among a niche group of nuclear power countries.”

But Khan had accepted his guilt and was even sacked! In 2003, the Bush administration reportedly turned over evidence of a nuclear proliferation network that implicated Khan’s role to the Musharraf administration. Khan was dismissed from his post on 31 January 2004.

On 4 February 2004, Khan appeared on Pakistan Television (PTV) and confessed to running a proliferation ring, and transferring technology to Iran between 1989 and 1991, and to North Korea and Libya between 1991 and 1997.

Ibn-ul-Hassan said yesterday, “Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan has solidified Pakistan’s defence. This is perhaps one of the greatest national services to Pakistan.”

Col (retd) Mukhtar Ahmed Butt: “Dr Qadeer decided to leave behind his comfortable life in the west and moved back to Pakistan. He was a great individual, a blessing of Allah to Pakistan.”

Well, Pakistan was the only country that could have pardoned him. The Musharraf administration avoided arresting Khan but launched security hearings on Khan who confessed to the military investigators that former Chief of Army Staff General Mirza Aslam Beg had given authorisation for technology transfer to Iran.

On 5 February 2004, President Musharraf issued a pardon to Khan as he feared that the issue would be politicised by his political rivals.

Justice (retd) Zia Pervez said, “Dr Abdul Qadeer is a beacon of hope for us.”

Usman Damohi said, “Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah founded Pakistan and Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan strengthened its defence. He should be remembered as a great hero of Pakistan.”

However, this was how the “hero of Pakistan” conducted his affairs after being pardoned. Despite the pardon, Khan, who had strong conservative support, had badly damaged the political credibility of the Musharraf administration and the image of the US who was attempting to win the hearts and minds of local populations during the height of the Insurgency in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

While the local television news media aired sympathetic documentaries on Khan, the opposition parties in the country protested so strongly that the US in Islamabad had pointed out to the Bush administration that the successor to Musharraf could be less friendly towards the US. This restrained the Bush administration from applying further direct pressure on Musharraf due to a strategic calculation that it might cause the loss of Musharraf as an ally.

In December 2006, the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission (WMDC), headed by Hans Blix, stated that Khan could not have acted alone “without the awareness of the Pakistan Government”. Blix’s statement was reciprocated by the US government, with one anonymous American government intelligence official quoted by independent journalist and author Seymour Hersh: “Suppose if Edward Teller had suddenly decided to spread nuclear technology around the world. Could he really do that without the American government knowing?”.

In 2007, the US and European Commission politicians, as well as IAEA officials, had made several strong calls to have Khan interrogated by IAEA investigators, given the lingering scepticism about the disclosures made by Pakistan, but Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, who remained supportive of Khan and spoke highly of him, strongly dismissed the calls by terming it as “case closed”.

In 2008, the security hearings were officially terminated by Chairman joint chiefs General Tariq Majid who marked the details of debriefings as “classified”. In 2008, in an interview, Khan laid the whole blame on former President Musharraf and labelled Musharraf as the “Big Boss” for proliferation deals. In 2012, Khan also implicated Benazir Bhutto’s administration in proliferation matters, pointing to the fact that she had issued “clear directions in this regard”.

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