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How CIA "protected" A.Q. Khan

Hasan Suroor

He was caught stealing designs from a Dutch uranium plant. Former Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers in a radio programme says the CIA saved Khan from going to prison.

LONDON: In a disclosure that is likely to embarrass American authorities, the former Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers has revealed how the CIA protected the controversial Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan and saved him from going to prison after he was caught stealing secret designs from a Dutch uranium plant in 1975.

Mr. Lubbers, who was Minister of Economic Affairs at the time, told a Dutch radio station on Tuesday that because of pressure from the CIA no action was taken against Dr. Khan and he was quietly allowed to return to Pakistan.

"Copying secret designs"

In a 35-minute programme on Radio Argos, which describes itself as the Dutch equivalent of the BBC, Mr. Lubbers said that Dr. Khan was then working for a company called FDO and his job allowed him access to the British-German-Dutch uranium enrichment facility, Urenco, in Almelo in the Netherlands. On one of his visits, he was allegedly found "copying" and taking away secret designs from Urenco.

According to Mr. Lubbers, Dr. Khan was banned from entering Urenco and the matter was reported to the police but, surprisingly, the case was dropped and he was allowed to leave the country. He said he learnt later that the CIA told the Dutch authorities not to arrest him as they wanted to follow him in order to find out more about his activities relating to Pakistan's secret nuclear programme.

Hushed up

Mr. Lubbers also said that the information was kept away from the country's Parliament, and the "scandal" became public only in 1979 thanks to a Dutch TV programme. Legal proceedings were launched against Dr. Khan and he was sentenced to four years' imprisonment in absentia.

In 1985, Dr. Khan appealed against the judgement and the court ordered a retrial on grounds that proper procedures were not followed in the original trial. But, according to Mr. Lubbers, Dr. Khan was not put on trial a second time — again because of pressure from the CIA.

"A mistake"

Mr. Lubbers, who was Prime Minister then, was asked in the programme why his Government succumbed to CIA pressure. He admitted that, looking back, he believed it was a mistake but said at that time the political climate in Europe was such because of the Cold War "you had to listen to the Americans."

Gerard Legebeke, editor-in-chief of the programme in which Mr Lubbers was interviewed, told The Hindu that this was the first time such a senior Dutch political leader [Mr. Lubbers was Prime Minister for 12 years] had talked publicly about the CIA's role in protecting Dr. Khan at a time when American and European secret services were on his trail for smuggling nuclear material to build an atomic bomb for Pakistan.

He said that Dr. Khan, who had a Dutch wife, continued to "slip in and out of Holland illegally" and the secret services including the CIA knew about it.

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