President Pervaiz Musharraf has pledged that the disgraced founder of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme can keep the vast wealth he accumulated selling bomb-making technology to rogue states around the world.
As Gen Musharraf provoked worldwide consternation by pardoning Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan for supplying nuclear expertise to Libya, Iran and North Korea, he said last week that he would also spare the scientist’s property or assets.
“He can keep his money,” Gen Musharraf said, adding that there had been good reason not to investigate the origin of Dr Khan’s suspicious wealth before 1998, when Pakistan successfully tested its first nuclear weapon. “We wanted the bomb in the national interest and so you have to ask yourself whether you act against the person who enabled you to get the bomb.”
Dr Khan is believed to have earned millions of dollars from his sale of nuclear know-how, beginning in the late 1980s. Much of the money was funnelled through bank accounts in the Middle East. His assets include four houses in Islamabad worth an estimated £1.5 million, a villa on the Caspian Sea, a hotel in Mali and a valuable vintage car collection.
Gen Musharraf said he understood the need for Pakistani scientists to develop a secret overseas network when building their first nuclear weapon. “Obviously, we made our nuclear strength from the underworld. We did not buy openly. Every single atomic power has come through the underworld, even India.”
Dr Khan, 69, made a televised confession of his wrongdoing last week after being confronted by government investigators. Since then he has been in a state of limbo. Despite being granted a pardon, he is under house arrest and has been forbidden to give interviews. “He should not talk for some time,” Gen Musharraf told the Telegraph.
There has been widespread criticism in Pakistan over the treatment of a man nationally revered as the “father of the bomb”. His supporters have filed a habeas corpus petition to be heard tomorrow by the Lahore High Court, asking it to end the “media trial” of a “national hero”.
Opposition parties, meanwhile, have taken advantage of the growing groundswell of support for Dr Khan to renew their attacks on Gen Musharraf, who came to power in a military coup four years ago.
The Pakistan People’s Party, led from exile by the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, doubts the authenticity of Dr Khan’s admission, which it says was made “under duress”.
Dr Khan was initially reported to have told government investigators that he did nothing without the knowledge of Pakistan’s military chiefs, including Gen Musharraf. In his televised confession, however, he said he had no authorisation from the government.
Imran Khan, the former cricketer who leads the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI), claims that Gen Musharraf pressurised Dr Khan in order to safeguard his own reputation. “It could not be possible that nuclear technology was transferred without the knowledge of top military officials,” he said.
Dr Khan’s evolution into national hero began soon after India shocked its neighbour with its first nuclear bomb test in 1974. He promised Pakistan’s then prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, that he could match India’s weapon and finally did so in 1998, when Pakistan successfully tested its first nuclear weapon. He became an icon, his image appearing on billboards and bumper stickers.
Dr Khan sold nuclear technology almost as fast as Pakistan devised it, offering Saddam Hussein a design for a nuclear weapon in 1990, according to a document seized by UN weapons inspectors. The Iraqi leader suspected a trap and declined.