|Thursday, 5 February 2004|
Pakistani nuclear scientist seeks clemency for leaks
ISLAMABAD, Wednesday (Reuters)
Pakistan's top nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan accepted full responsibility on Wednesday for a weapons proliferation scandal that extends from Libya to North Korea, and asked President Pervez Musharraf for clemency.
In one of the biggest nuclear proliferation scandals in history, Khan has been blamed for leaking weapons secrets and equipment to Iran, Libya and North Korea, and Musharraf is believed to be considering whether to prosecute the scientist.
Intelligence sources said Khan had called the meeting with Musharraf in a last-ditch bid to strike a deal and avoid prosecution.
"Dr A.Q. Khan submitted before the president that he accepts full responsibility for all the proliferation activities, which were conducted by him during the period in which he was at the helm of affairs of Khan Research Laboratories," the government said in a statement.
Khan headed KRL, the country's main nuclear research organisation, until 2001.
"Dr Khan has submitted his mercy petition to the president and requested for clemency, in view of his services to national security," the statement added.
Western diplomats and many Pakistanis believe Khan could not have sold nuclear secrets and sent technology for enriching uranium abroad without the knowledge of top military officials.
An open trial could lead to embarrassing evidence implicating the powerful army, which Musharraf still heads, and make a national martyr of Khan, who is revered as the father of Pakistan's atomic bomb.
Musharraf has already made many enemies in Pakistan for supporting the U.S.-led "war on terror" and trying to make peace with India, and diplomats say Washington would probably forgive him if he chose not to try Khan.
The general narrowly survived two assassination attempts late last year blamed on disgruntled Islamic militants, and the U.S. administration sees him as a valuable ally.
"President Musharraf has assured us that Pakistan was not involved in any kind of proliferation - and I'm talking about the government of Pakistan," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
"We value those assurances. The ongoing investigation into these proliferation issues by the government of Pakistan is a sign of how strongly Pakistan takes that commitment."
The Islamic opposition has pounced on the government's treatment of Khan, saying he had been treated as a scapegoat and had only been hounded by the authorities because of pressure from the United States.
"I don't think people like A.Q. Khan should be tried. He is a national hero. He has developed the (nuclear) programme," said Qazi Hussain Ahmed, head of the Islamic coalition which has threatened to call a national strike over the issue.
Pakistan originally denied its nuclear secrets and technology had been leaked, either officially or by individuals.
But it launched an investigation in November after the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency provided evidence pointing to Pakistan's involvement in Iran's nuclear programme. Similar links have been found with Libya.
A senior military official told Pakistani journalists on Sunday that Khan had made a detailed statement confessing to supplying designs, hardware and materials used to make enriched uranium for atomic bombs to Iran, Libya and North Korea.
Khan is reported to have said he was acting on the indirect instructions of two former army chiefs, Generals Aslam Beg and Jehangir Karamat, a claim a military spokesman said had been "assessed and found wrong".
A friend of Khan has also been quoted as saying the scientist told investigators that Musharraf himself knew about the transfer of nuclear know-how to North Korea, an allegation the military called "absurd".
The government said Khan was preparing to address the nation on the nuclear probe, and a decision on whether he would be pardoned would be taken by the National Command Authority, which oversees Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.
The NCA, headed by Musharraf, is due to meet on Wednesday evening.
In his first public remarks since the probe was launched, Khan told state-run Pakistan Television he had requested the meeting and held a frank exchange with the president.
"The president was extremely kind and understanding," he said. "He appreciated the frankness with which I gave him the details."
Khan has been under 24-hour guard in recent days. Around 10 police and security officials were outside his villa in the capital Islamabad on Wednesday. Reporters trying to stake out his home were ordered to leave the area. (Additional reporting by Tahir Ikram).
Produced by Lake House