April 14, 2008

An uncomfortable freedom for A Q Khan

A Q Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear program, is set to regain lost freedoms under a new government, but the local and international vultures are waiting in the shadows, Naveed Ahmad reports for ISN Security Watch.

By Naveed Ahmad in Islamabad for ISN Security Watch (14/04/08)

Spring cleaning in Pakistan has gotten off to a very determined start, with the tables turned on long-time Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf following 18 February elections, an opposition coalition forming a new government, media curbs lifted, detained judges freed, and even a new parliament-approved policy toward the US-led war on terror. But the latest move to ease restrictions on the country's top nuclear scientist, Dr Abdul Qadeer Kahn has garnered the most attention.

An official summary leaked by the Interior Ministry awaits prime ministerial approval for relaxing certain strict sanctions against Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear program.

Addressing a weekly media briefing, Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Muhammad Sadiq said there was no danger in allowing the aging and ill Khan to meet with friends and dine out.

The celebrity-style public life of the 72-year-old scientist came to an abrupt end in January 2004 when an internal probe conducted after tip-offs from the US found that he allegedly smuggled nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya.

As the nation now embraces freedom of speech, Khan has bitterly criticized Musharraf for keeping him under house arrest for the last 1,500 days. In an interview with an Urdu-language daily, Khan said he saved Pakistan twice while risking his life; once flying to Pakistan from Holland with nuclear secrets and later by taking the blame for nuclear smuggling.

On 4 February 2004, in a stage-managed event, Khan appeared on television and made a public confession, apologizing to the nation and absolving the military regime of involvement.

Khan accepted full responsibility for the weapons proliferation scandal, which he conducted during the period in which he was at the helm of affairs of the country's secret nuclear installation named after him.

Hard life of a 'hero'
Khan was born in 1936 to a family of a Muslim school teacher in Bhopal, India (a city now known for the 18,000 deaths caused there by an accidental venting one night in 1984 at a Union Carbide insecticide plant).

Abdul Qadeer Khan outshined his six siblings through his hard work and dedication to research in Germany and Holland. By the time he returned to Pakistan, he had 23 research papers and one edited book on a variety of arcane metallurgical topics to his credit.

Ever since his soft way of life came to an abrupt end, Khan has been suffering physical ailments, including chronic high blood pressure.

More recently, the Pakistani scientist underwent surgery for prostate malfunction and a host of other problems. His friends with rare access to see him believe that Khan's psychological problems are more acute and complicated than his physiological ailments.

"What do you expect to happen with an old man who cannot exercise his very fundamental human rights [...]. It is a miracle that he has lived through these agonizing times," the scientist's wife, Henny Khan, remarked for local media.

Others blame the political leadership in the country for his current state of health.

William Langewiesche, author of a recent book The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor, told Netscape magazine that Khan felt "deeply, deeply betrayed by the political leadership of Pakistan."

Though some outspoken politicians fear systemic poisoning of the aging nuclear hero, medical experts privy to Khan's condition refute such allegations.

"[He] is not in his 20s or 30s [...]. Let's face it, he is an old man who has been in near solitary confinement for the past three years or so[...]," a senior medical professor requesting anonymity told ISN Security Watch.

Khan is seeking political intervention in his case especially from the ruling parties, one of whom had promised the veteran scientist's release if the opposition won the elections.

Not only has the government quietly warned Khan against giving interviews to journalists but media houses have also been "advised" to avoid "sensationalizing the story in the larger national interest."

Nasir Zaidi, a veteran human rights activist, believes that Khan deserves more than freedom of movement. "He is still a national hero no matter [whether] Musharraf likes him or not," he told ISN Security Watch.

Numerous public opinion polls suggest that the Pakistani people blame the previous military regime of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq and the army for nuclear deals made through Khan.

Though the scientist's leading aides were removed from high-profile research assignments, none of the former or serving military generals were included in the list.

International vultures
The easing of restrictions on Khan has raised eyebrows at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has been seeking access to him for interviews. Though the Pakistani Foreign Ministry claims that Islamabad has shared all related information retrieved from Khan with the nuclear watchdog and other concerned nations, suspicions across the globe remain far from addressed.

So far, Musharraf has categorically refused access to the detained nuclear expert, saying that the case was closed. While the diplomatic community continues to monitor the situation closely in Islamabad, a spokesperson for the Pakistani Justice Ministry told ISN Security Watch that Khan is not likely to be granted access to an international body or be handed over to the IAEA for questioning.

International law expert and retired ambassador Zahid Saeed told ISN Security Watch that the Pakistani national did not fall under the IAEA's jurisdiction as Pakistan is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

In New York, Pakistan has called for a new consensus on disarmament and nonproliferation to respond to new realities and challenges, and has declared its opposition to new arms races at regional and global levels.

The Pakistan daily Dawn quoted the country's UN Ambassador Munir Akram UN Disarmament Commission meeting as saying that any consensus must also reflect the importance of reducing and eliminating discrimination in the current non-proliferation regime and arrangement.

However, sources in the Pakistani Foreign Ministry admit that there is increased pressure on the new government to revisit its decision to refuse access to the ailing nuclear scientist.

"Since his recent retraction from earlier admission, the international interest in interviewing Dr Khan has increased manifold," a reliable source in the Foreign Ministry told ISN Security Watch, though the ministry spokesman Sadiq has outright denied just a development.

Instead, Sadiq claims that the Khan issue is a closed and no country has approached Pakistan with any new requests.

Analysts believe that the country is set to face a fresh diplomatic challenge on the A Q Khan front if Musharraf is removed from power.

Historically speaking, sanctions were slapped on Pakistan by the US whenever the country got rid of its military dictators.

However, Khan's friends are raising fresh fears about his safety and well-being when restrictions are relaxed.

Zahid Malik, Khan's biographer and a newspaper publisher, believes that the national hero deserves fool-proof security and protocol while respecting his privacy.

The Pakistani nation may revere the scientist as an unparalleled national hero, but the ghost of an international probe into his allegedly shadowy past practices may haunt him as long as he is alive. And as far as his friends and relatives are concerned, his new-found freedom under a new, more democratic government may attract the international vultures.

Naveed Ahmad is ISN Security Watch’s senior correspondent in Pakistan.

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