- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 5, 2004

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf yesterday pardoned a scientist at the heart of a global nuclear trading ring, saying he would block any international probe into Pakistan’s nuclear program.

Despite the Bush administration’s hard line against weapons proliferation in Iraq, North Korea and elsewhere, U.S. officials yesterday refused to criticize the pardon and praised what they said was Gen. Musharraf’s decision to act against nuclear proliferation in his country.

Gen. Musharraf made the announcement a day after Abdul Qadeer Khan, a national hero in Pakistan for his role in developing the country’s nuclear bomb, confessed to having sold nuclear material and expertise to Iran, Libya and North Korea.

“There was a written mercy appeal from his side and a written pardon from my side,” Gen. Musharraf told reporters in Islamabad yesterday. “… My job here is number one, to protect my nation, and number two, to protect the honor and dignity of our hero. But I’ll never reverse this order.”

Gen. Musharraf told reporters he would not permit the International Atomic Energy Agency to conduct an independent inquiry into Mr. Khan’s trading network, even though IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei yesterday called the Pakistani scientist just the “tip of the iceberg.”

“This is a sovereign country. No document will be given. No independent investigation will take place here,” Gen. Musharraf said.

Later in the day, Pakistani Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri said his country was ready to cooperate with the IAEA on suspected Pakistani nuclear data transfers to Iran, but drew the line at any probe of Pakistan’s own nuclear program. Many openly doubt that Mr. Khan and his associates could have operated the proliferation network spanning two continents without at least tacit approval from the country’s political and military leaders.

White House and State Department spokesmen yesterday declined repeated opportunities from reporters to criticize Pakistan’s nuclear safeguards or the Musharraf government.

“As far as the specifics of sentencing or pardons or whatever, that really is a matter for Pakistan to decide,” said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. “And they’ll take, I’m sure, appropriate measures under Pakistani law to ensure that [Mr. Khan] and his associates are no longer able to endanger the international community.”

The hands-off approach came despite revelations in a speech by CIA Director George J. Tenet yesterday that it was U.S. and British intelligence agents who helped piece together the nuclear black market being run out of Pakistan.

Private analysts said the mild U.S. reaction reflected fears that Gen. Musharraf, seen as a crucial ally in the global war on terrorism, could be undermined at home by an extensive probe of Mr. Khan’s dealings and his ties to the country’s military.

IAEA evidence indicated that Pakistani technology and expertise was sold to Iran, North Korea and Libya, with a Malaysian-based company playing a key middleman role.

Mr. ElBaradei said he was not sure Mr. Khan was the mastermind of the nuclear trading ring.

“We’re still in the process of investigating this whole network of supply, so we haven’t really seen the complete picture,” he said.

Gen. Musharraf told reporters that 11 scientists, military officers and technicians who had worked at Mr. Khan’s research lab had also been detained, but said that two former army generals, widely suspected of having at least tolerated Mr. Khan’s activities, had been cleared of wrongdoing.

Mr. Khan, 67, remains a potent and popular symbol in Pakistan, despite his brief televised confession this week admitting to trading the country’s nuclear secrets for cash. The metallurgist led the effort to develop Pakistan’s own nuclear bomb, the first for a Muslim-majority country and a weapon seen as critical in evening the odds in the strategic rivalry with neighboring India.

Islamic opposition parties threatened to hold street protests if Mr. Khan was put on trial, and many of Pakistan’s newspapers warned that a harsh punishment of the researcher could backfire on the government. Gen. Musharraf narrowly survived two recent assassination attempts blamed on Islamic radicals.

The Daily Nation, in an editorial yesterday, warned that “it is just the wrong time to hold trials in connection with what has come to light about proliferation.”

“We simply cannot afford to further erode the credibility of the scientists as well as that of the Pakistan army and its chiefs,” the newspaper said.

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