Abdul Qadeer Khan, celebrated as the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme, died yesterday at 85.
The nuclear scientist, who spent the last years of his life under heavy guard, passed away in the capital Islamabad, where he had recently been hospitalised with Covid-19.
Khan had long been hailed a national hero for transforming Pakistan into the world’s first Islamic nuclear weapons power and strengthening its clout against rival and fellow nuclear-armed nation India.
But he was declared by the West a dangerous renegade for sharing technology with rogue nuclear states.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan joined a rapidly building chorus voicing grief at the news, lamenting that the country had lost “a national icon”.
“He was loved by our nation bec(ause) of his critical contribution in making us a nuclear weapon state,” the prime minister tweeted. “For the people of Pakistan he was a national icon.”
President Arif Alvi tweeted yesterday that Khan “helped us develop nation-saving nuclear deterrence, and a grateful nation will never forget his services in this regard.”
Arrangements were quickly made for a state funeral yesterday afternoon at Islamabad’s Faisal Mosque, with all government ministers and armed forces officers asked to attend. Flags were also ordered to fly at half-mast.
According to Islamic tradition, burials should take place as soon as possible, usually within 24 hours of death.
Just hours after news of Khan’s death broke, an orange mechanical digger was busy clearing a grave as mourners began arriving for the service at the giant mosque — the sixth-largest in the world.
It began raining heavily as Khan’s coffin, draped with a Pakistani flag, was carried through a sea of black umbrellas.
Amid tight security, a massive crowd gathered to bid him farewell, with many making videos and snapping pictures as the coffin was carried into a tent-covered area accommodating Khan’s family members, ministers and other top officials.
Nearby, thousands of members of the public crammed into an uncovered enclosure, getting soaked as they prayed in the downpour.
Khan was lauded for bringing the nation up to par with India in the atomic field and making its defences “impregnable”.
But he found himself in the international crosshairs when he was accused of illegally sharing nuclear technology with Iran, Libya and North Korea.
He confessed in 2004, after the International Atomic Energy Agency — the UN nuclear watchdog — put Pakistani scientists at the centre of a global atomic black market.
Pardoned by the nation’s military ruler Pervez Musharraf, he was only put under house arrest for five years.
“I saved the country for the first time when I made Pakistan a nuclear nation and saved it again when I confessed and took the whole blame on myself,” Khan told AFP in an interview in 2008.
Musharraf once described Khan’s admission of guilt, following a tip-off from the CIA, as the most embarrassing moment of his presidency.
Pakistan never let foreign investigators question Khan, saying it had passed on all relevant information about his nuclear proliferation, despite repeated calls for access by Western officials and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
In his confession, Khan said he acted alone without the knowledge of the state officials. Later he said he had been scapegoated.
After his house arrest was lifted, he was granted some freedom of movement around the leafy capital, but always flanked by authorities, who he had to inform of his every move.
Yesterday, journalists gathered behind barriers blocking off the street leading to his home in the capital as a procession of cars entered and left the property.
Born in Bhopal, India on April 1, 1936, Khan was just a young boy when his family migrated to Pakistan during the bloody 1947 partition of the sub-continent at the end of British colonial rule.
He did a science degree at Karachi University in 1960, then went on to study metallurgical engineering in Berlin before completing advanced studies in The Netherlands and Belgium.
His crucial contribution to Pakistan’s nuclear programme was the procurement of a blueprint for uranium centrifuges, which transform uranium into weapons-grade fuel for nuclear fissile material.
He was charged with stealing it from The Netherlands while working for Anglo-Dutch-German nuclear engineering consortium Urenco, and bringing it back to Pakistan in 1976.
On his return to Pakistan, then prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto put Khan in charge of the government’s nascent uranium enrichment project.
By 1978, his team had enriched uranium and by 1984 they were ready to detonate a nuclear device, Khan later said in a newspaper interview.
He maintained that nuclear defence was the best deterrent.
After Islamabad carried out atomic tests in 1998 in response to tests by India, Khan insisted Pakistan “never wanted to make nuclear weapons. It was forced to do so”.
Khan also stirred a new controversy that same year when, in an interview to mass circulated Urdu newspaper Jang, he said he transferred nuclear technology to two countries on the direction of slain prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
He did not name the countries, nor did he say when Bhutto, the twice-elected prime minister who was assassinated in 2007, had supposedly issued the orders.
“I was not independent but was bound to abide by the orders of the prime minister,” he was quoted as saying.
Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party denied the claim as “baseless and unfounded”.
Nearly a decade ago, Khan tried his luck in the political arena, forming a party — the Tehreek-e-Tahafuz Pakistan (TTP), or the Save Pakistan Movement — in July 2012 in hopes of winning votes on the basis of the respect he still commands in Pakistan.
But he dissolved it a year later after none of its 111 candidates won a seat in national elections.
He fondly recalled to Reuters working on Pakistan’s nuclear programme in the 1980s and how then military ruler General Zia ul-Haq kissed him on his forehead when significant progress was made.
“I want to bring change and help the people of Pakistan, like I did back in 1974, when India test fired its nukes,” he said.
In 2006 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, but recovered after surgery.
None of the controversies that dogged Khan’s career appeared to dent his popularity at home.
He regularly wrote op-ed pieces, often preaching the value of a scientific education, for the popular Jang group of newspapers.
Many schools, universities, institutes and charity hospitals across Pakistan are named after him, his portrait decorating their signs, stationery and websites.
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