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Architect of Pakistan's nuclear programme A.Q. Khan dies

October 11, 2021 02:25 PM

Islamabad, Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, considered the father of Pakistan's nuclear programme, died on Sunday after his health deteriorated. He was 85.

According to Radio Pakistan, he was admitted to a local hospital where his health deteriorated early morning. The nuclear scientist died after being transferred to a hospital with lung problems.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan said Dr Khan was loved by the nation because of his critical contribution in making Pakistan a nuclear weapon state.

Last month, Khan had complained that neither Prime Minister Imran Khan nor any of his cabinet members inquired after his health while he was under treatment at a hospital.

He would be buried at Islamabad's Faisal mosque, according to his wishes.

A.Q. Khan, (born April 1, 1936, Bhopal, India), was also involved for decades in the black market of nuclear technology and know-how whereby uranium-enrichment centrifuges, nuclear warhead designs, missiles, and expertise were sold or traded to Iran, North Korea, Libya, and possibly other countries.

Through his job at the European Uranium Enrichment Centrifuge Corporation (URENCO) in Amsterdam in the early 1970s, he methodically stole classified plans for a centrifuge that would create bomb-grade uranium. After years of this, Khan began to raise suspicions—but by then he had enough information. He and his family quietly relocated to Pakistan.

In 1976, Pakistan founded the Engineering Research Laboratories to construct and run a uranium enrichment facility—a massive undertaking staffed by some 10,000 people. Khan was at the helm. The laboratory was later renamed the Khan Research Laboratories, or KRL, in his honour.

Khan used his connections in the West to purchase dual-use materials and technologies, which could be used for either civilian or military purposes. He used a network of companies in different locations to minimize international attention. While the United States was aware of what he was doing, Europeans export control laws were not very stringent, so the Europeans were not able to prevent businesses from supplying him with what he needed. His lab’s work continued, supplied by businesses that were operating within the boundaries of the law, the outrider.org writes.

Before Pakistan tested its first nukes, A.Q. Khan began making deals with other countries interested in acquiring his lab’s technology. The Pakistani government made no effort to stop him; in fact, it’s likely that some within the government and military actively helped.

Iran was the first. In 1987, Khan closed a $3 million deal with Iran for centrifuge designs and the materials needed to produce them. In 1989, KRL began holding international conferences on uranium enrichment, advertising its capabilities to other nations. By the end of the century, it was sending salesmen to international arms shows to advertise its products. Khan was also doing business with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein—though their deal fell through when the First Gulf War began.

In 1992, the Pakistani government reached out to North Korea to inquire about their missile technology. Over the next decade, the two countries traded missile technology for uranium enrichment technology, outrider.org writes.

In 1997 Khan begins to transfer centrifuges and centrifuge components to Libya. Libya receives 20 assembled P-1 centrifuges and components for 200 additional units for a pilot enrichment facility. Khan’s network continued to supply the centrifuge components until late 2003. At the time, he is also suspected of beginning nuclear transfers to North Korea. Transfers to North Korea continued through 2003.

In December 1997, several reports stated that Pakistan's then-Chief of Army Staff General Jehangir Karamat secretly visited Pyongyang. Khan claimed that Karamat was aware of the deal between Pakistan and North Korea to exchange enrichment assistance for missile technologies.

In 1998, India detonated a series of five devices in nuclear tests on May 11 and 13. Pakistan responded with six nuclear tests on May 28 and 30.

In 2000, the United States shared their evidence of centrifuge trading between Pakistan and North Korea with Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf—who pinned all the blame on Khan. But after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States turned a blind eye to Khan and Pakistani nuclear deals in exchange for help in the fight against violent extremism.

In 2003, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) found traces of highly enriched uranium on equipment in Iran—twice. For years Iran had denied that they had a nuclear weapons program, so they declared that the materials were secondhand, originating from another country. Pakistan—and in turn Khan—was implicated.

In October 2003, the British and Americans intercepted a ship carrying equipment to build nuclear weapons to Libya. Evidence connected the shipment with Khan. The Libyan enrichment facility was being built based on the same stolen URENCO design as Pakistan’s.

Months later, Libya turned over plans for an implosion device to investigators—again, it was the same one Pakistan had used. Notes in the margins implicated Khan even further. Pakistan was under a lot of pressure to act.

On February 4, 2004, Khan appeared on live television and admitted to his sweeping role in the proliferation of nuclear materials. He claimed that he had acted alone, without the government—though many observers doubt this is true. As punishment, he was confined under house arrest in his lavish mansion in Islamabad. He was released in 2009.

He later said he had been scapegoated.

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