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Pakistan’s nuclear guru under suspicion

As Pakistan investigates allegations of nuclear technology transfers to Iran, Libya and North Korea, the father of the nation’s nuclear program, Abdul Qadeer Khan, has come under suspicion.
A Pakistani woman brandishes a toy gun and others carry posters of Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan at a rally to protest the detention of Pakistani nuclear scientists Tuesday in Lahore, Pakistan.K. M. Chaudary / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

As Pakistan’s nuclear probe enters its final stretch, investigators have focused on a man revered as a national hero: Abdul Qadeer Khan, father of the country’s nuclear program.

Known as a self-promoting nationalist, Khan has always been surrounded by controversy, including allegations he stole plans from a former Dutch employer that jump-started Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program in the 1970s.

Pakistan began its probe into its nuclear program and possible proliferation to Iran in late November after admissions made by Tehran to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog. Allegations also have surfaced that Pakistani technology spread to Libya and North Korea as well.

An intelligence official familiar with the investigation told The Associated Press on Tuesday that Khan is among a small number of suspects in the probe, but “a final determination is yet to be made” of his guilt.

Khan has made no public comment; a friend said the scientist told him he had done nothing wrong.

Officials acknowledge Khan is still being questioned, and even though he’s not one of the seven scientists and security officials still detained in the investigation, they won’t rule out that he might face charges. Acquaintances say Khan’s movement has been restricted to the capital, Islamabad.

“Nobody is above the law,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Masood Khan told reporters Tuesday.

** FILE ** Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, shown in this March 19, 1998 photo taken in Islamabad, Pakistan. The father of Pakistan's nuclear program Khan is a suspect in an investigation of nuclear secrets leaked to Iran and Libya, an intelligence official said Tuesday Jan. 27, 2004. (AP Photo/B.K.Bangash)B. K. Bangash / AP

On Monday, Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said “one or two people” acted for personal profit in trying to spread nuclear technology. President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has also acknowledged that some officials from the nuclear program may have proliferated weapons technology for personal gain, but has denied any official involvement.

Abdul Qadeer Khan founded the program that developed nuclear weapons in Pakistan, the first in the Islamic world. He has been awarded the country’s highest civilian award twice — the only person so honored.

In recognition of Khan’s contribution, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons lab was renamed for him in 1981. Khan retired in 2001 but still serves as a government adviser.

Born in present-day India in 1935 to a teacher’s family, Khan emigrated to Pakistan in 1952, five years after its partition from India. He earned a doctorate in metallurgy in Belgium and began working in 1972 at a Netherlands subsidiary of the British-German-Dutch nuclear conglomerate URENCO, returning in 1976 to head Pakistan’s nuclear program.

While at URENCO, Khan had access to centrifuge technology — used to enrich uranium into the form needed to produce weapons — and was reportedly assigned to translate highly classified documents describing the designs in detail.

In 1983, a Netherlands court convicted Khan in absentia on a charge of stealing confidential material from URENCO and sentenced him to four years in prison. He denied the charge, and the conviction was later overturned on a technicality.

Khan’s name has come up before in allegations Pakistan spread nuclear technology — to Iraq. An AP report in December 2002, citing U.N. documents, diplomats and former weapons inspectors, said a middleman claiming to represent Khan offered to help Baghdad build a bomb on the eve of the 1991 Gulf War.

Profit was the alleged motive for the offer, which the Iraqis rejected. A company Khan owned in Dubai was to transfer the equipment.

In the current investigation, a media report Sunday said scientists’ bank accounts were being traced and that one unnamed nuclear scientist had a tens of millions of dollars in financial and real estate holdings in Pakistan and abroad, including in Dubai. It did not name the scientists.

Zahid Malik, a journalist and friend of Khan’s who recently saw him, said the scientist denied any wrongdoing. “He told me that he is innocent and has not done anything against the interest of Pakistan,” Malik said.

Khan’s flamboyant persona has earned him some detractors, and he’s long been viewed with skepticism in the West. But even Pakistani media have reported on his possible role in the scandal recently, one of the first times Khan has faced criticism at home.

“He is used to accusations in the Western press, but he’s disturbed that there are accusations now from the Pakistani press as well,” Malik said.

Khalid Mahmood, a senior research fellow at Islamabad’s Institute of Regional Studies, said Khan’s support within Pakistan wasn’t strong enough to shield him from the investigation.

“There is a constituency, a lobby which protects him as a hero,” Mahmood said. “This is a very limited lobby and they do not have the ability to mobilize popular support.”

Khan has backers among Pakistan’s Islamist parties, who have supported the scientists in the investigation. They accuse Musharraf of kowtowing to the West, and fear the investigation will lead to Pakistan giving up its nuclear weapons.

Officials say whatever the probe finds, Pakistan will never turn over its bombs.

“Pakistan will remain a nuclear weapons state. We will continue to enhance our nuclear capability,” said Masood Khan, the Foreign Ministry spokesman.