Thursday, February 12, 2009

Pakistan Nuclear Scientist is Set Free

Pakistan’s disgraced nuclear scientist Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, who helped develop nuclear weapons and allegedly leaked atomic secrets to North Korea, Iran and Libya, has recently been freed from years of de facto house arrest by a High Court ruling. A smiling Dr.Khan emerged from his house in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad and addressed mediapersons face-to-face for the first time since 2004. However, he indicated he would not be discussing Pakistan's atomic bomb program or about who was involved in leaking its secrets around the world.
Dr.Khan, the architect of Pakistan's nuclear programme, took sole responsibility in 2004 for leaking the nuclear secrets but was immediately pardoned by former President Pervez Musharraf and placed under de facto house arrest. The Government insists neither it nor the Pakistani military was aware of his activities. It was apparent then that this was an elaborate camouflage. Dr. Khan was, in essence, being sequestered from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigators and American interrogators. The matter was not taken up at the United Nations Security Council; nor were proliferation-related national sanctions imposed on Pakistan by the US. The US also took a lenient view on this case.
The 72-year-old Dr.Khan, who has suffered a string of illnesses, began agitating for an end to the restrictions after ouster of the President Musharraf in 2008. Over the past year, he has been allowed to occasionally meet friends outside his house and has often spoken to media over the phone.
In response to an appeal by his lawyers, the Islamabad High Court declared Dr.Khan "a free citizen". The Court stated that other details of the order were confidential. The freedom was limited to Islamabad and that "more strings have been attached" regarding what he could say.
Result of Compromise
The decision was the result of a compromise with the government and that "security measures" for Dr.Khan would remain. The Government has never said that Khan was under house arrest, maintaining he was being held for his own security.In 2008, an order issued by the same Court barred him from discussing the subject of nuclear proliferation even with his relatives.
A pariah in the West, Dr. Khan is lionised by conservatives and Islamists for making Pakistan the world's only Muslim nuclear power and is a hero to many ordinary citizens. One of his first visitors was a senator from the country's most powerful Islamist party. It said Pakistan has taken "all necessary measures to promote the goals of non-proliferation. The so called Dr.Khan affair is a closed chapter."
Whatever the domestic calculations of the civilian authorities and the military establishment in releasing Dr. Khan now, the decision underlines the continuing proliferation challenge emanating from Islamabad. The former proliferator may not have any formal connection to Pakistan’s nuclear programme but the international ring he helped establish exists.
Impact on US-Pak Relations
With a new President in the White House, it will be interesting to watch the impact of the Court’s judgment on the US-Pak relations. The US Democrats committed to nuclear non-proliferation are unlikely to take it lightly. In January 2009, the US had imposed sanctions on the controversial scientist, his 12 associates and three Pakistani companies, barring them from any deal with the US Government and private enterprises. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal has been the subject of wide coverage in the US media in recent weeks. This may be Pakistan’s way of reminding the international community, ahead of the donor countries’ meeting, that it cannot be allowed to fail and that Islamabad is capable of taking a defiant stand. This indicates that the nuclear network of Dr.Khan is still intact. The story of Pakistan’s nuclear programme would have been different today had the CIA not prevailed upon the Dutch authorities in 1975 not to arrest Dr.Khan when he was suspected of stealing classified information and secretly providing it to the Pakistani authorities.
The man guilty of having committed such a serious crime as indulging in illegal trade in nuclear-enrichment technology and blueprints remains unrepentant. He has provided proof of this through his latest comments. The fact is that what he did was not entirely his own project. Dr.Khan himself stated some time ago that his nuclear proliferation activities were known to the Pakistan Army high-ups and the ISI. His argument was that it could not have been possible for him to send centrifuges to North Korea, which he did through that the country’s military aircraft in 2000, with the Pakistan Army remaining ignorant about it. That is why the Pakistan establishment had been refusing to allow him to be interrogated by any outside agency.
In fact, the US in a position similar to the early 1980s. It was prepared to sacrifice its non-proliferation policy to enlist Pakistani support for the mujahideen campaign against soviet forces in Afghanistan. Now it may have to sacrifice its missile defence and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) expansion policies to have logistic facilities via Russia and Central Asia to deal with the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The US needs to see Dr.Khan provocation for what it is. If he accepts Pakistani assurances that the nuclear scientist will do no harm, he will be exposing a chink in his armour. At the same time, a no-compromise line will define him as a man who means business.

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