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ISLAMABAD: Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, known as the ‘father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb’, died at a hospital here on Sunday after his lungs collapsed, severely damaged by coronavirus infection that he had contracted last month.
Khan, 85, has been revered as a national hero for making Pakistan a nuclear power. Islamabad had detonated its first nuclear weapon in 1998 when he was leading the Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) – a uranium enrichment facility that has been expanded to many other fields of science over a period of time – in Kahuta, near Islamabad.
“Dr Khan was loved by the nation because of his critical contribution in making us a nuclear weapon state. This has provided us security against an aggressive much larger nuclear neighbor (India). For the people of Pakistan, he was a national icon,” Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan posted on Twitter after the nuclear scientist’s death. Army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa said Khan’s contributions in making Pakistan’s defence stronger were “significant”.
Amid tight security, Khan had been living a secluded life at his residence in Islamabad’s upscale E-7 neighbourhood since 2004 after he had admitted to a role in a massive global nuclear proliferation scam. In a televised address, he had accepted responsibility for illegal proliferation of nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya. Ex-military ruler Gen Pervez Musharraf had sacked him from his position. The former president, however, had also granted him clemency using his discretionary powers but kept him under house arrest till 2009. “It would have been disastrous for Pakistan if I had not accepted responsibility,” the nuclear scientist had once said.
In a 2018 book “Pakistan’s Nuclear Bomb: A Story of Defiance, Deterrence And Deviance”, Pakistani-American scholar and academic Hassan Abbas has highlighted Khan’s involvement in nuclear proliferation in Iran, Libya and North Korea.
He wrote that the origins and evolution of the Khan network were tied to the domestic and international political motivations underlying Pakistan’s nuclear weapons project.
The writer also examined the role of China and Saudi Arabia in supporting its nuclear infrastructure. Khan is reported to have intimate links with China’s nuclear establishment.
The US State Department said in 2009 that Khan had run an “extensive international network for the proliferation of nuclear equipment and know-how that provided ‘one stop shopping’ for countries seeking to develop nuclear weapons”.
According to the State Department, this network’s actions had “irrevocably changed the proliferation landscape and have had lasting implications for international security”.
Western diplomats have long doubted whether Khan could have acted alone. Talking to foreign media in the past, Khan had said the confession “was handed into my hand”.
Khan was born in 1936 in Bhopal, India, and had migrated along with his family to Pakistan after the Partition. He studied metallurgical engineering in Berlin after completing a degree in science from Karachi University in 1960. Later on, he went for advanced studies to Netherlands and Belgium.
After India’s nuclear test in 1974, he had joined Pakistan’s clandestine efforts for developing nuclear technology. For this purpose, he had founded the KRL in 1976 and was its chief scientist and director for many years until his removal by Musharraf in 2004 over accusation of running a rogue proliferation network for nuclear material.
During the last few years of his life, he had been seeking help from courts to relax restrictions on his movement. “I had been kept as a prisoner having no free movement or meeting with anybody,” Khan wrote to Pakistan’s Supreme Court last year in a handwritten note against the state.
Last month, he had complained that neither Imran nor any of his cabinet members inquired about his health when he was under treatment at a hospital. He was admitted to KRL hospital on August 26 after testing positive for Covid-19. Later, he was shifted to a military hospital in the garrison city of Rawalpindi. He was discharged from there few weeks ago after recovering from the virus. His health, however, took a turn for the worse last night when he started feeling discomfort in breathing due to bleeding in his lungs. At 7:04am, doctors pronounced him dead.
He was given a state funeral at Islamabad’s Faisal Mosque before his burial at the city’s H-8 graveyard. His funeral was attended by cabinet members, parliamentarians and military officers among others. To mourn his death, the national flag was flown at half-mast.