Sunday, February 8, 2004

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — President Pervez Musharraf has pledged that the disgraced founder of Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons program can keep the vast wealth he accumulated selling atom bomb-making technology to rogue states around the world.

Gen. Musharraf, just days after provoking worldwide consternation by pardoning Abdul Qadeer Khan for supplying nuclear expertise to Libya, Iran and North Korea, said in an interview with the London Sunday Telegraph that the scientist’s property or assets also would be spared.

“He can keep his money,” Gen. Musharraf said, adding that there had been good reason not to investigate the origin of Mr. 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.”

Mr. 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 funneled through bank accounts in the Middle East.

His assets include four houses in Islamabad worth an estimated $2.8 million, a villa on the Caspian Sea, a luxury hotel in Mali and a valuable collection of vintage cars.

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,” he said. “We did not buy openly. Every single atomic power has come through the underworld, even India.”

Mr. Khan, 69, last week made a televised confession of his wrongdoing after government investigators confronted him.

Despite being granted a pardon, he is under house arrest and forbidden to give interviews.

“He should not talk for some time,” Gen. Musharraf told the Sunday Telegraph.

The Bush administration termed Mr. Khan’s legal plight “a matter for Pakistan to decide,” but publicly praised Gen. Musharraf for shutting down Mr. Khan’s nuclear sales network.

Within Pakistan, criticism has been directed at the government for its treatment of a man nationally revered as the “father of the bomb.”

Mr. Khan’s supporters 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, took advantage of the growing groundswell of support for Mr. 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 former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, says it doubts the authenticity of Mr. Khan’s admission, which it claims was made “under duress.”

Mr. Khan initially was 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 authorization from the government.

Imran Khan, who leads the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) party, contends that Gen. Musharraf pressured Mr. Khan to safeguard his own reputation.

“It could not be possible that nuclear technology was transferred without the knowledge of top military officials,” the party leader said.

Mr. Khan’s evolution into national hero began soon after India shocked its neighbor with its first nuclear bomb test in 1974. He promised Pakistan’s then-president, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Mrs. Bhutto’s father, 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, and his image appeared on billboards and bumper stickers.

Mr. 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 U.N. weapons inspectors. The Iraqi leader suspected a trap and declined.

Mr. Khan then sold his designs to Libya, Iran and North Korea.

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