Musharraf pardons nuclear scientist in weapons probe

Friday, February 6, 2004

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Pakistan's president pardoned the country's top nuclear scientist Thursday for leaking weapons technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea -- a move designed to ease domestic political pressures and head off a deeper inquiry into official involvement in years of nuclear proliferation.

Just two weeks after condemning possible rogue elements in Pakistan's nuclear program as "enemies of the state," a defiant and unapologetic President Gen. Pervez Musharraf forgave Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan after the disgraced scientist took responsibility on national television for leaks that spanned at least a decade starting in the late 1980s.

Musharraf's decision to back away from a public trial appeared weak to some international observers suspicious of his and Kahn's contention that the Pakistani government didn't authorize or know about the proliferation.

But key allies like the United States and Britain pointedly withheld criticism Thursday. Analysts said Washington was unlikely to seek tougher action against Khan for fear of putting the Pakistani leader in a tight spot.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan sidestepped repeated questions about whether the Bush administration wants Pakistan to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

"President Musharraf provided us assurances that the government of Pakistan was not involved in any kind of proliferation activity," McClellan said.

"The investigation by the government of Pakistan demonstrates their commitments to addressing the issue of proliferation, and this proliferation is no longer. The actions of Pakistan have broken up this network and that's important."

Musharraf, who seized power in 1999, is a key Washington ally in its war on terrorism and the hunt for al-Qaida fugitives, particularly along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan.

"They do not want to embarrass him further and make his job more difficult," said Talat Masood, a Pakistani military and political analyst. "Without Musharraf, the whole war on terror would be compromised."

Strongly worded criticism of Khan's pardon came Thursday from former U.S. chief weapons inspector David Kay.

"I can think of no one who deserves less to be pardoned," Kay said in Washington.

He called the disclosures "a wake-up call" and said Khan was "running essentially a Sam's Club" of weapons technology.

But Khan is regarded by many of Pakistan's 150 million people as a national hero. Trained in Europe, he founded the program that made Pakistan the Islamic world's first nuclear-armed state in 1998, to rival the military might of its historic enemy and larger neighbor, India.

"From Musharraf's standpoint, it's far preferable to try to draw a line under the issue by accepting Khan's confession, rather than run the political risks of a full-scale investigation and trial," said Gary Samore of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

A public trial of Khan could have led to a showdown with hard-liners and proved embarrassing to top government and military officials.

Islamist and opposition groups have protested Khan's fall from grace since Pakistan launched an investigation in November. The inquiry came in response to information from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, that Pakistani technology had been found in Iran and Libya.

Musharraf was unapologetic about pardoning Khan, whom he referred to as a "hero" many times in a two-hour news conference at army headquarters Thursday. "Whatever I have done, I have tried to shield him," he said.

Details of the pardon weren't made public, including whether Khan would have to repay any of the millions he is suspected of receiving for selling Pakistan's nuclear secrets.

No announcement was made on the fate of the six other suspects: two scientists and four security officials at Pakistan's top nuclear facility, the Khan Research Laboratories, named after Khan.

In Vienna, Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the U.N. nuclear agency, warned that Khan's activities were "the tip of an iceberg" in the international nuclear black market, and promised further investigations.

Musharraf ruled out an independent investigation of any military involvement in proliferation, or any U.N. monitoring of its nuclear program -- despite emerging evidence of Khan's central role in an international nuclear black market, also suspected to involve manufacturers and middlemen in Asia and Africa.

"This is a sovereign country," said Musharraf, wearing camouflage fatigues. "No documents will given, no independent investigation will take place here and we will not submit to the United Nations coming inside here."

Musharraf also lashed out at fellow Muslim nations Iran and Libya for caving in to international inspectors and turning over documents on their nuclear programs. "Muslim brothers did not ask us before giving our names," he said.

However, he invited the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency to share in the findings of Pakistan's two-month probe into the nuclear leaks, which has involved the questioning of at least 11 lab employees and two former army chiefs.

In a note of defiance, Musharraf announced Pakistan would test within one month, for the first time, its Shaheen II missile, which has a range of 1,240 miles -- nearly three times the range of its current top missile. He also vowed to keep Pakistan's nuclear capability.

"This country will never roll back its nuclear assets," Musharraf said. "It can never be done."

Khan appeared on national television Wednesday to apologize and appeal for the government's mercy. It was a shock to many Pakistanis, although the scientist is actually no stranger to controversy.

After earning a doctorate in metallurgy in Belgium, Khan worked at a Dutch laboratory in the early 1970s run by the British-German-Dutch nuclear conglomerate URENCO.

In 1983, a Netherlands court convicted Khan in absentia on a charge of stealing confidential material from URENCO -- allegedly used to jump-start Pakistan's nuclear program in 1976 -- and sentenced him to four years in prison. He denied the charge, and the conviction was later overturned on a technicality.

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