Abdul Qadeer Khan, who died Sunday, was praised in Pakistan for turning it into the world’s first Islamic nuclear power.
But he was seen by the West as a dangerous renegade responsible for smuggling technology into rogue states.
The nuclear scientist, who died at 85 in Islamabad after being recently hospitalized with Covid-19, was revered as “the father of the Pakistani nuclear bomb”.
He was considered a national hero for having put the country on a par with its Indian rival in the atomic domain and made its defenses “impregnable”.
But he found himself in the crosshairs of controversy when he was accused of illegally proliferating nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea.
Khan was placed under house arrest in the capital Islamabad in 2004 after admitting to leading a proliferation network in the three countries.
In 2006, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, but recovered after surgery.
A court ended his house arrest in February 2009, but his movements were strictly monitored and he was accompanied by the authorities whenever he left his home in an upscale neighborhood of Islamabad.
– Crucial contribution –
Born in Bhopal, India on April 1, 1936, Khan was just a young boy when his family emigrated to Pakistan during the bloody partition of the subcontinent in 1947 at the end of British colonial rule.
He obtained a science degree from the University of Karachi in 1960, then studied metallurgical engineering in Berlin before completing graduate studies in the Netherlands and Belgium.
The crucial contribution to Pakistan’s nuclear program has been the purchase of a model uranium centrifuge, which transforms uranium into military grade fuel for fissile nuclear material.
He was accused of stealing it in the Netherlands while working for the Anglo-Dutch-German nuclear engineering consortium Urenco, and bringing it back to Pakistan in 1976.
On his return to Pakistan, then Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto gave Khan responsibility for the government’s uranium enrichment project.
By 1978 his team had enriched uranium and by 1984 they were ready to detonate a nuclear device, Khan later said in a newspaper interview.
The 1998 nuclear test saw Pakistan face international sanctions and plunge its economy into free fall.
Khan’s aura began to fade in March 2001 when President Pervez Musharraf, apparently under pressure from the United States, removed him from the presidency of Kahuta Research Laboratories and made him a special advisor.
But the Pakistani nuclear establishment never expected to see its most revered hero under questioning.
The move came after Islamabad received a letter from the International Atomic Energy Agency, a United Nations watchdog, containing allegations that Pakistani scientists were the source of cheap nuclear knowledge.
Khan said in a speech to the Pakistan Institute of National Affairs in 1990 that he had connections with world markets while developing Pakistan’s nuclear program.
“It was not possible for us to manufacture every piece of equipment in the country,” he said.
– ‘I saved the country’ –
Khan was pardoned by Musharraf after his confession, but later retracted.
“I saved the country for the first time when I made Pakistan a nuclear nation and I saved it again when I confessed and took all the blame on myself,” Khan told the ‘AFP in an interview in 2008 when he was effectively under house arrest.
The scientist believed in nuclear defense as the best deterrent.
After Islamabad carried out atomic tests in 1998 in response to India’s tests, Khan said Pakistan “never wanted to manufacture nuclear weapons.” He was forced to do so ”.
Almost a decade ago, Khan tried his luck in the political arena, forming a party – the Tehreek-e-Tahafuz Pakistan (TTP), or the Pakistan Safeguarding Movement – in July 2012 in the hope to win votes on the basis of the respect he still commands in Pakistan.
But he dissolved it a year later after none of its 111 candidates won seats in national elections.
Khan also sparked new controversy the same year when, in an interview with the Urdu-language newspaper Daily Jang, he said he transferred nuclear technology to two countries under the leadership of assassinated Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
He did not name the countries, or say when Bhutto, the twice-elected prime minister who was assassinated in 2007, supposedly gave the orders.
“I was not independent but I was required to respect the orders of the Prime Minister”, he declared.
Bhutto’s Pakistani People’s Party denied this claim, calling it “unfounded and unfounded.”
None of the controversies seem to have dented Khan’s popularity even years later.
He regularly wrote opinion pieces, often preaching the value of a science education, for the popular Jang newspaper group.
Many schools, universities, institutes and charity hospitals across Pakistan bear his name, his portrait decorating their signs, stationery and websites.
© 2021 AFP