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Hero turned victim

Print edition : Feb 27, 2004 T+T-

DR. ABDUL QADEER KHAN'S transformation from a benefactor who provided the nuclear shield to Pakistan and protected it from the "evil eyes" of India to a proliferator who endangered its very existence has been momentous.

Khan, a controversial figure throughout his career, has a fascinating background. Born in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, in 1935, he is the son of a teacher. He migrated to Pakistan in 1952. Pro-Islamic and anti-Hindu sentiment constituted the driving force behind his quest to turn Pakistan into a nuclear power.

After studying in the Netherlands and Belgium, he worked at URENCO, a British-German-Dutch consortium engaged in uranium enrichment. There he was accused of stealing centrifuge designs that ultimately paved the way for Pakistan's weapons programme. In 1983, a Dutch court convicted him in absentia for stealing European plans needed to build a plant to produce enriched uranium. A superior court exonerated him of the charges.

Ironically, it is URENCO technology that Khan is suspected of having sold to Iran, Libya and North Korea. It is not clear what motivated him to pass on the secrets to these countries. Motivated leaks in the media point to the greed for dollars.

In the one and only background briefing provided to a select group of Pakistani journalists, persons investigating the scandal said that Khan wanted to divert international attention from Pakistan's nuclear programme and was helping Islamic countries acquire nuclear technology.

Whatever the truth, it is impossible for anyone, at least in Pakistan, to strip him of the title of the "father" of Pakistan's nuclear bomb. The patronage that he enjoyed from the military establishment and the state is evident from the fact that he is the only one in the country to have been decorated with the highest civilian award twice. It is not surprising then that there are few takers for the theory that the Pakistani establishment was innocent of the transfer of technology.

Trained as a metallurgist, Khan has portrayed himself as a patriot and a pacifist. He described Pakistan's bomb as "a weapon of peace". For him it was the ultimate weapon that would help Pakistan overcome its security concerns arising out of the imbalance in conventional weapons vis-a-vis India.

In 1976, following India's first nuclear test in 1974, Abdul Qadeer Khan was given the task of organising a nuclear programme, when he returned to Pakistan from Europe. He had written to the then Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, offering his services to give a fitting reply to the Indian explosion. It was that year that Pakistan set up the Kahuta research laboratories near Islamabad in order to establish a uranium enrichment plant that would help it realise its nuclear ambitions. He presided over the organisation until 2001, when President Pervez Musharraf chose to retire him, at the age of 63. He was made an adviser to the government in an attempt to drown protests against a rollback of Pakistan's nuclear programme.

Little is known about Khan's style of functioning or the activities at the laboratory. In the early 1980s, Khan made international headlines when he told Indian journalist Kuldip Nayar that Pakistan was close to making a bomb. Although he denied the interview later, the episode highlighted the clout he had come to acquire within the establishment.

In recent years, he has acquired a large-than-life image in the public eye because of his association with educational and charitable institutions.