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The undiminished popularity of A.Q. Khan

Nirupama Subramanian

For the people of Pakistan, neither the charges against the scientist nor his own confession matter. The belief that he single-handedly made the bomb is widespread.

File Photo: AP

Abdul Qadeer Khan.

A day after the Pakistan Government announced that the country's top nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, was suffering from prostate cancer, there was more than usual activity on the quiet road outside his house in Islamabad's affluent E-7 sector, where he has been held in "protective" custody for the last two and a half years.

Select visitors had been permitted to meet Dr. Khan. The ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid) president, Chaudhary Shujat Hussain, and Information and Broadcasting Minister Mohammed Ali Durrani were inside, and later in the evening, they would tell the National Assembly that the 70-year-old scientist was hashash bashash — merry and hearty.

Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz sent him a bouquet of flowers, and cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan offered the scientist the best treatment for cancer at his hospital in Lahore.

Dr. Khan was named by the United States as a nuclear proliferator who sold nuclear secrets to Libya, Iran, and North Korea, and soon after, the scientist made a televised confession to the charges. But for the people of Pakistan, neither the charges nor the confession matter.

"It's well known that Pakistan has to dance to America's tunes. But I pray to Allah for his good health," said Mohamed Ikhlaq, a shopkeeper. "Qadeer Khan is our national hero. If it were not for him, and the atom bomb he made for this country, India would have attacked us long ago and we would not be here today."

Jahangir, a meat-shop owner, said by giving Pakistan the bomb, Dr. Khan had elevated the country's standing in the world.

The belief that Dr. Khan single-handedly made the bomb is widespread.

"That is what everybody was told for 20 years. Naturally, with nothing else happening in the country, A.Q. Khan is seen as someone who has given the common man a sense of pride," said defence and strategic affairs analyst Ayesha Siddiqa.

"In a place where corruption is normal, the man on the street does not care that A.Q. Khan made money out of nuclear secrets. People have more faith in him than in the country's politicians. They think at least he's given the country something."

There have been unconfirmed reports that he is confined to one room in his large house, that the room has iron grills, much like a prison, and that his wife and a grand-daughter who live in the same house have to pass through metal detectors to meet him. A daughter who lives in Islamabad has been refused permission to see him.

But the Government says it has given "state protection" for a man wanted by the outside world. The Musharraf Government has repeatedly said it will not disrespect what appears to be extreme reverence for a man who played a crucial role in the country's nuclear programme.

Four days after placing him under house arrest, President Pervez Musharraf granted him a presidential pardon. The Government also gave several assurances in Parliament and outside that it would never hand him over to American or international interrogators. The International Atomic Energy Agency is said to have sent written questionnaires to the Government, whose officials then put the questions to Dr. Khan.

The Government has said it will keep the public informed about his health. In other places, the publicity given to the minutiae of his medical condition would have been considered too much information and an invasion of the patient's privacy. Not in Pakistan, at least in this case.

"We are all very concerned. He is an icon for Pakistan. We are all praying for his good health and recovery," said PML (Q) secretary-general Mushahid Hussain Sayed.

A smoke-screen?

But there are also those who believe that the announcement of Dr. Khan's cancer is an elaborate smoke-screen created by the Government.

In the Assembly on Wednesday, the Opposition charged that Dr. Khan was being killed. A member of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) said, "we fear that Dr. A.Q. Khan is being poisoned. I want to bring our apprehensions on the record." Another member of the same party said he was being "murdered." A leader of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal wanted to know why he was not allowed to meet the scientist.

While, on the one hand, Opposition parties say the Government has treated Dr. Khan unfairly by keeping him under virtual house arrest, there is also the overall sense that he is being held incommunicado because he could implicate powerful people in the present set-up.

In July, a top official of the government's nuclear establishment said that in his de-briefing sessions, Dr. Khan had named two ex-aides of Benazir Bhutto as his accomplices. Both are dead.

The Pakistan People's Party hit back saying that while it was convenient for the Musharraf government to name two men who could not defend themselves, it did not explain how Dr. Khan and these two individuals could have smuggled out centrifuge units weighing tonnes across security cordons and in military aircraft, as alleged, without the active involvement of those in the government.

Journalist Shahid-ur-Rehman, who wrote the book Long Road to Chagai tracing the history of Pakistan's nuclear programme, also subscribes to the view that Dr. Khan could not have carried out a proliferation racket all by himself.

"Why is the government not handing him over to the U.S for questioning? If he did sell nuclear secrets it is a big crime, so why have they not prosecuted him? Yes, he is held in high esteem in this country, but I don't think that is the reason. This regime is not bothered by what people think," Mr. Rehman said.

He predicts the Government will use Dr. Khan's medical condition to ward off attempts by the international interrogators to gain direct access to him, just as it has used his popularity to prevent a full investigation into the proliferation charges.

Already, one newspaper, dismissing the proliferation charges, has warned against sending him abroad for treatment. In an editorial on Thursday, The Nation said the allegations "set afloat" by the Western media against Dr. Khan had a "strong element of doubt and bias in them," and asserted that "the nation cannot forget his services," and that "in the most trying circumstances of sanctions" he made Pakistan "impregnable."

The newspaper expressed confidence that the Government would make available to Dr. Khan the best treatment the country had to offer. "In view of the controversy surrounding his alleged role in proliferation and the U.S.' keen interest to get his custody for investigation purposes, it must also be ensured that the treatment is provided within the country. No excuse for sending him abroad will be acceptable."

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