Pakistan Frees Scientist Who Leaked Nuclear Secrets to Iran, N. Korea

By Patrick Goodenough | February 9, 2009 | 5:00 AM EST

Newly freed Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, center, talks to media outside his home in Islamabad, Pakistan on Friday, Feb. 6, 2009. (AP Photo/B.K.Bangash)

( – The Pakistan government is trying to play down and distance itself from a court order releasing the world’s most notorious nuclear proliferator from house arrest. The move threatens to exacerbate tensions with the West.
On the eve of a first visit by the Obama administration’s new envoy for the region, Richard Holbrooke, a Pakistani court late on Friday lifted restrictions imposed on Abdel Qadeer Khan five years ago, when he admitted sharing nuclear know-how with Iran, North Korea and Libya.
Over the weekend, government officials, including Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, argued that Khan no longer posed a danger as his proliferation network had been “broken.” A foreign ministry statement called the affair “a closed chapter.”
The claims were in stark contrast to State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid’s assertion that “this man remains a serious proliferation risk.”
Less than a month ago, the U.S. government imposed sanctions on 13 individuals – including Khan – and three companies for involvement in an extensive network, headed by him, that offered “one-stop” shopping for countries aspiring to have nuclear weapons.
A leading regional security analyst at the weekend summed up concerns about Khan now going free.
“The danger in future will be not so much about his helping other countries as about his helping the anti-U.S. jihadi groups, including al-Qaeda, in acquiring a military nuclear or a dirty bomb capability,” said Bahukutumbi Raman, a former top-ranking Indian government official and director of the Institute for Topical Studies in Chennai.
In Delhi, the Times of India warned that Khan should be closely supervised because of “the danger of his establishing contact with the Taliban and al-Qaeda who are making rapid inroads in the western regions of the country.”
While talking down the significance of the court ruling, Qureshi and others also stressed that the decision came from an independent judiciary, and the foreign minister – speaking at a security conference in Germany – added that the government reserved the right to appeal against it.
The claim of government non-involvement was called into question, however, when Defense Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar told an independent television channel that Khan had been released under an agreement with the government.
Khan himself, speaking to journalists after the court ruling, alluded to official intervention: “All this has happened because of the keen interest taken by the president, the prime minister and especially Rehman Malik [the powerful internal security advisor to the prime minister], who has looked into the case, reviewed it, discussed it with the government and with the concerned authorities.”
The Khan affair has dogged relations with Western governments for years.
A scientist and metallurgist, Khan became head of Pakistan’s military nuclear program after working during the 1970s for a uranium enrichment plant based in the Netherlands. According to reports published over many years, he used blueprints stolen from that Dutch plant when designing his homeland’s program.
The government of former president Gen. Pervez Musharraf confirmed in late 2003 that Khan and his associates were being questioned about the alleged leaking of sensitive technology to other countries.
The following February, Khan confessed in a television broadcast that he had been involved in what he said was the unauthorized proliferation of nuclear technology to other countries. Musharraf then pardoned him, prompting speculation in the country that a deal had been struck – the scientist would absolve the government and military of any involvement, and in exchange would not face criminal charges.
The suspicions persisted when Musharraf refused to allow officials from the U.S. or the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to question Khan. (He said information obtained during interrogation was shared with Western governments and the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog.)
When former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was campaigning in 2007 ahead of elections she was favored to win, she said that if she returned to power she may give outside investigators access to Khan. Bhutto was assassinated in December 2007 and the government led by her widower, President Asif Ali Zardari, took no action in that regard.
‘Most valued national asset’
Friday’s court ruling said allegations of nuclear proliferation had not been “substantiated.” Khan was free to move around the country, although for security reasons, he should inform government about his movements. He would also be provided security at government expense.
The British government responded to the news by demanding that Pakistan give the IAEA access to him.
A spokesman for India’s ruling Congress party said the international community should consider declaring Pakistan a terrorist state.
“Pakistan is not only exporting terrorism, but also posing danger by allowing nuclear weapons to fall into the hands of terrorists,” Manish Tewari told journalists in New Delhi.
Khan may be disgraced internationally for his willingness to sell nuclear technology to some of the world’s most dangerous regimes, but he is a hero in Pakistan for developing the nuclear weapons that leveled out the regional military balance with arch-foe India. Many Muslims in Pakistan and beyond also revere him as the founder of “the Islamic bomb.”
Some opposition parties have even suggested that he become president.
His release from house arrest was widely welcomed in Pakistan. After the Islamabad High Court verdict was made known, well-wishers flocked to his residence to congratulate him.
The head of the Islamist political party Jamaat-e-Islami, Syed Munawar Hasan, described him as Pakistan’s “the most revered national hero” after Mohammed Ali Jinnah, regarded as the father of modern Pakistan.
In an editorial, the Frontier Post of Peshawar described Khan as “our invaluable national asset and a hero who fathered our nuclear deterrence,” and ascribed the international reaction to unhappiness about a Muslim state possessing a nuclear weapons capability.
It warned that “plausibly hostile forces out there” may try to “nab him and spirit him away for their own nefarious ends.”
Khan said now his movements were no longer restricted he wanted to visit family in Karachi, and would also seek government permission to undertake the Hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca.
Last June, another key member of the Khan proliferation network went free, when the Malaysian government released from detention a Sri Lankan national named Buhary Seyed Abu Tahir. President Bush in 2004 described Tahir as Khan’s deputy and the network’s “chief financial officer and money launderer.”
Tahir is one of the 13 individuals sanctioned by the U.S. government last month.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow