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August 27, 2018
Abdul Qadeer Khan Freed From House Arrest

Peter Crail

In February, Pakistan lifted most restrictions on former Pakistani nuclear official Abdul Qadeer Khan, who had organized an extensive black market network contributing nuclear weapons-related technology to Iran, Libya, North Korea, and perhaps other countries. The Islamabad High Court Feb. 6 declared Khan a "free citizen," although still subject to some undisclosed security measures, after finding that charges against Khan for nuclear smuggling could not be proved.

Khan has been under house arrest since 2004 when he confessed to the charges and was pardoned by then-President Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Since Musharraf was removed from power in 2008, Khan has recanted his confession and now maintains that it "was not of [his] own free will." (See ACT, July/August 2008.)

Khan is considered a hero by many in Pakistan due to his instrumental role in that country's nuclear weapons program. He first used his nuclear smuggling network in the 1970s and 1980s to acquire the uranium-enrichment technology used to produce material for Pakistan's nuclear arms.

The United States has called the lifting of restrictions "regrettable." Department of State spokesperson Gordon Duguid said that Washington believes that Khan "remains a serious proliferation risk." On Jan. 12, the United States placed financial restrictions on Khan, as well as 12 individuals and three companies associated with his network. The sanctions freeze any assets the individuals or entities have under U.S. jurisdiction and prevent U.S. persons and entities from doing business with them.

Islamabad has continued to rebuff efforts by the United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to question Khan about his smuggling activities. Pakistani officials have also insisted that Khan's nuclear trafficking network has been dismantled and that he no longer poses a serious proliferation risk. Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told reporters Feb. 7, "We have successfully broken the network that [Khan] had set up, and today he has no say and has no access to any of the sensitive areas of Pakistan."

Members of Congress have expressed concern that not enough has been done to address the potential that Khan's network may still be operating. Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, welcomed the Jan. 12 announcement of U.S. sanctions but expressed concern that they were "belated" and may not prevent the network from continuing to operate. He asserted in a Jan. 12 statement that "the sanctions do not put an end to the matter; equipment and technology from this network may still be circulating, and new suppliers could well spring up to take Khan's place." Berman suggested in a Feb. 6 statement that Congress would take into account Pakistan's refusal to provide access to Khan as it reviews U.S. policy and assistance toward Islamabad.

In this regard, Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on terrorism, nonproliferation, and trade, introduced a resolution Feb. 12 proposing that Pakistan's pursuit of its nonproliferation commitments "should be a guiding element in determining [U.S.] policy toward that country, including with respect to [U.S.] bilateral assistance."

Khan Middleman Admits CIA Collusion

Meanwhile, a key figure in Khan's network has recently admitted that he cooperated with U.S. intelligence agencies to undermine and halt the network's nuclear smuggling activities. Swiss national Urs Tinner said in a documentary called "The Spy From the Rhine Valley," which aired on Swiss television Jan. 22, that he helped the CIA halt assistance the Khan network was providing for Libya's nuclear weapons program.

Germany arrested Tinner in 2004 and extradited him to Switzerland on suspicion of smuggling nuclear technology in violation of Swiss export control laws. Tinner worked with the Khan network to manufacture centrifuges used to enrich uranium. The network sold these centrifuges and components to Libya, as well as countries such as Iran and North Korea, to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons.

Tinner's father, Fredrich, and brother, Marco, were also arrested on similar charges. As of January, all three had been released on bail. The Tinners were not included among the individuals sanctioned by the United States in January.

The same day the documentary aired, the Swiss parliament issued a report that supported Tinner's claim of cooperation with U.S. intelligence agencies as well as suspicions that the Swiss federal government destroyed evidence related to the Tinner case under pressure from Washington. (See ACT, July/August 2008.)

The files in question consisted of information related to the Tinners' operations in the Khan network and included blueprints for an advanced nuclear weapons design. According to the report, after consulting and sharing the information with U.S. intelligence agencies and the IAEA, the Swiss federal government decided to destroy all of the documentation it acquired from the Tinners. Swiss prosecutors and the Tinners' defense lawyers objected to this destruction due to the impact on the criminal case.

Moreover, the report also found that, under U.S. pressure, Swiss authorities granted immunity to the Tinners from a Swiss criminal law prohibiting its nationals from assisting the intelligence services of another country.

The parliamentary report concluded that the Swiss federal government should have accepted a U.S. offer to take control of the files and separate the sensitive nuclear weapons blueprints from the other information rather than destroy them.