In return for his “freedom” from de facto house arrest in 2009, Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb who was accused of running a proliferation ring, agreed with the Pakistan government to a stringent set of conditions that restricted his movement and curtailed his interactions, ensuring that his release remained by and large symbolic.
The conditions, never publicised before but much speculated about as they were ordered to be kept secret by a court in Pakistan, are contained in a U.S. diplomatic cable. Thanks to WikiLeaks, we now know of Pakistan Interior Secretary Kamal Shah assuring the U.S. Ambassador that the court decision provided legal cover to the government in dealing with the disgraced scientist, as his previous detention had no legal basis.
The document reveals the Pakistan People’s Party-led government’s tight-rope walk between domestic public sentiment that revered Dr. Khan as a national hero and wanted him freed, and U.S. and international pressure not to release him.
Dr. Khan was placed under virtual house arrest by President Pervez Musharraf in 2004 after his confession on national television that he had sold nuclear secrets to Libya, Iran and North Korea. The confession followed U.S. investigations into what is now known as “the A.Q. Khan network.” Dr. Khan later retracted the confession and said he had been forced to make it.
After President Musharraf stepped down in August 2008, the Bhopal-born Pakistan scientist moved the Islamabad High Court for his release. By then, the PPP government, which had been elected to power just months earlier, was already under tremendous pressure to release him.
Ministers made conflicting statements as they tried to satisfy, on the one hand, public opinion at home, and on the other, the international nuclear order that still held the 75-year-old to be a proliferation risk. As a WikiLeaks cable published last year revealed, the U.S, in particular, conveyed to Pakistan that he should not be released.
In February 2009, the court declared Dr. Khan a “free citizen,” but only after it had brokered a “secret agreement” between him and the government. The court prohibited either side from making the details public.
Dr. Khan accepted, among other conditions, that he would not request any visits to any “strategic organisations or their subsidiaries.” He would not call any person working in those organisations for a meeting “without the prior permission of the Authorities.” He would inform the authorities of any visit to outstation destinations “48/24 hours in advance.” And in case Karachi was his destination, such information would be given “03/02 days prior to planned movement.”
Guest lists to functions at his home, a restaurant or a hotel “must be cleared by local security staff amicably,” but foreigners were not allowed. Nor would he be allowed to travel abroad.
He was ordered by the court to keep his movements “secret and avoid visits to public places.”
Then there were certain conditions that Dr. Khan did not accept. These the court said it was ordering “in view of the peculiar nature of the case, its international ramifications and considering all surrounding circumstances.” He “shall join the pending inquiry/investigation on proliferation, as and when required by competent officials;” return “any material or document etc. on Pakistan’s nuclear program, if any, in his control;” refrain from “exploiting specific media personnel to influence public opinion on various national/international issues without Government clearance;” refrain “from indulging in any political activities and high profile socialization, whatsoever.”
Within minutes of the court pronouncing him a “free citizen,” Dr. Khan had held an impromptu press conference outside his plush E-7 villa in Islamabad. Mr. Shah expressed regret to Ms. Patterson “that Khan had been able to make comments to the press, but told the Ambassador that the impromptu press conference outside of Khan’s home had been conducted prior to the formal release of the court’s decision and had thus caught the law enforcement agencies unprepared.”