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Malaysia arrests senior figure in nuclear proliferation probe

Malaysian authorities Friday arrested a Sri Lankan businessman accused of brokering deals in the black market for nuclear materials. Buhary Syed Abu Tahir is believed to be a senior figure in the proliferation network of Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan.
This photo released by Malaysian police shows Buhary Syed Abu Tahir, alleged to be the chief financier of an international nuclear trafficking network run by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Authorities Friday arrested a Sri Lankan businessman accused of brokering nuclear black market deals — the most senior figure in the proliferation network of Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan to be jailed since it was exposed this year.

Buhary Syed Abu Tahir was picked up under a security law allowing indefinite detention without trial and taken to a prison camp, three months after police cleared him of breaking any Malaysian laws for arranging for a company controlled by the prime minister’s son to make centrifuge parts for Libya’s nuclear programs.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who earlier insisted the police investigation proved there had been no wrongdoing and that Tahir would remain free, personally signed the detention order in his capacity as home minister, government officials told The Associated Press.

The arrest was not publicly announced. Two senior officials confirmed it to AP but refused to give details.

“He is deemed as a national security threat because of his past activities in this country,” one official said on condition of anonymity.

The official said Tahir was arrested Friday and taken to the Kamunting detention camp in northern Malaysia, where security suspects are held, including about 100 alleged Islamic militants.

Selling secrets to Libya, Iran, North Korea
Tahir’s arrest is believed to be the only detention of a senior operative of Khan’s network since he admitted in February to selling know-how and secrets to Libya, Iran and North Korea. Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf pardoned Khan after he made a public apology.

But the use of the security law to arrest Tahir means he is unlikely to face charges in open court.

International investigators say Khan’s network operated on five continents and was able to exploit loopholes in international nonproliferation treaties to provide what International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei called a “nuclear supermarket.”

President Bush, launching a fresh bid to stem global weapons proliferation after Khan’s network was exposed, identified Tahir as its “chief financial officer and money launderer.”

Malaysian police said Tahir told them that in addition to the Malaysia-Libya deal, he organized the shipment of centrifuge parts to Libya, and heard Khan talking about other nuclear deals.

Tahir, 44, owned a computer business in the United Arab Emirates that allegedly operated as a front for his work as middleman for Khan and opened up business connections in Asia and Europe.

High-level ties in Malaysia
Tahir cultivated high-level social and business ties in Malaysia, and married the daughter of a former Malaysian diplomat in 1998. The ceremony included guests from high-powered Malaysian business and political circles — and Khan himself. The couple split their time between Dubai and Malaysia.

Tahir became close to Abdullah’s son, Kamaluddin Abdullah, and was a director of Kaspadu, Kamaluddin’s privately held investment company, for part of the time that the centrifuge deal was negotiated. Kamaluddin has since cut all ties with Tahir.

Tahir brokered a contract for Scomi Precision Engineering, or SCOPE, to build sophisticated components that authorities say were for Pakistani-designed centrifuges to enrich uranium.

The CIA and Britain’s MI6 seized a shipment of the Malaysian-made centrifuge parts in October on their way to Libya. The raid was central to exposing Khan’s network, and triggered international investigations into Libyan and Iranian nuclear programs.

SCOPE insists it believed the machine parts were for use in the oil and gas industry in Dubai and had no inkling of their possible nuclear use. Malaysian police said the parts could have more than one use and cleared the company of any wrongdoing.

Tahir cleared earlier
Police also found that Tahir had broken no Malaysian laws, prompting government officials to say he would remain free. It was not clear if Friday’s arrest stemmed from activities subject to the earlier investigation, or something new.

SCOPE was a subsidiary of Scomi Group, which was in turn majority owned by Kaspadu.

Scomi Group has since sold SCOPE, along with some other subsidiaries. Kamaluddin says he had no direct management role at SCOPE.

News of Malaysia’s involvement in the proliferation network was sensitive for Abdullah because it came just weeks before national elections. Opposition groups tried to make it an election issue by accusing Abdullah of whitewashing the police investigation, but Abdullah won by a landslide.

The scandal created tension between the United States and Malaysia, which bristled at suggestions it had a wider role in Khan’s network.

Senior U.S. nonproliferation officials said there was no indication the Malaysian government was involved, but used the scandal to press Malaysia to tighten export controls on so-called dual-use items. Malaysia hasn’t introduced any new regulations.