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Scientists Suffer Nuclear Secrets' Fallout

A Pakistani researcher has been detained for six weeks amid suspicions the regime transferred technology to Iran. His family thinks the U.S. may be involved.

January 14, 2004|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Living with a top scientist in Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, members of Mohammed Farooq's family said they knew that military intelligence agents were watching and listening to them.

Farooq joined Pakistan's effort to build an atomic bomb 27 years ago and answered to the armed forces. The military intelligence agency keeps a close eye on those entrusted with such national secrets.

"People associated with the nuclear program fully understand the secrecy involved in it," Farooq's son Osman, 19, said in an interview. "They know before joining any nuclear-related organization that they will be constantly monitored, around the clock."

But they don't expect to disappear. About 10 p.m. on Dec. 1, days after news broke that Pakistani scientists may have passed bomb-making secrets to Iran, military intelligence agents led Farooq from his home. His family has not heard from him for six weeks.

Farooq's family and Pakistan's political opposition fear that the military is setting up the former chief of overseas procurement at the Khan Research Laboratories, or KRL, as a fall guy.

His wife, Kush Niaz, was allowed to visit him briefly the day after his arrest, when he was in the custody of military intelligence agents at an office of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency in Rawalpindi, a suburb of Islamabad. In a cryptic telephone call a day later, Farooq warned his family not to go to court for information about him. But his wife filed a petition this month, and a judge is expected to hear the case Thursday.

The Foreign Ministry said Dec. 23 that if any scientists transferred nuclear weapons secrets to Iran, they acted out of greed or ambition, and they broke the law. Farooq's family feels betrayed by the charge.

"It is impossible that he did what he has been accused of," said the scientist's nephew, Mahar Aamir Shahzad. "As an employee of KRL, he was monitored going from the bathroom to the dining room. How is it possible for him to supply any sensitive information?"

Pakistan's government awarded Farooq, 55, the country's highest civilian medal -- the Sitara-i-Imtiaz, or Star of Distinction -- for his nuclear weapons work. His relatives describe him as a humble patriot who traveled outside Pakistan only once, on a 10-day religious pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia in 1996 or 1997.

"My father is a very simple man," Osman said. "He doesn't even know how to use the Internet."

Pakistan's alleged nuclear proliferation dates back to the late 1980s, when former military dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq ruled. Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who succeeded Zia after he died in a 1988 plane crash, has so far not commented on the claims.

Her Pakistan People's Party is demanding that President Pervez Musharraf, who is also commander of the armed forces, allow parliament to investigate possible transfers of nuclear technology.

"Inquiries under Musharraf have lost their credibility," said Sen. Farhatullah Babar, the exiled Bhutto's spokesman in Pakistan. "The judiciary has been subverted. It should be an inquiry by parliament so that the scientists are not scapegoated."

Farooq's family fears authorities are torturing him or may have let U.S. agents take him out of the country for interrogation. So they are seeking a court order for information even though he warned them not to.

"In his last phone call, he asked us not to file a writ in any court of law, saying: 'It will harm me,' " the scientist's nephew said. "But we decided to file the writ because we don't know where he is."

Farooq is one of at least three scientists being questioned over alleged links with Iran.

U.S. officials have said they also suspect Pakistan might have supplied North Korea and Libya with blueprints for aluminum centrifuges of the type Pakistani scientists used to enrich uranium for nuclear bombs before they changed methods. Pakistan denies aiding the two countries, insisting that it always has maintained strict control over its nuclear program.

Foreign experts say the KRL facility at Kahuta, southeast of Islamabad, produces enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.

Pakistan first tested a nuclear bomb in 1998, soon after neighboring India conducted underground blasts. Farooq was in charge of the control room during the May 28 test.

Abdul Qadeer Khan, revered as a national hero for developing Pakistan's nuclear bomb, was also questioned during the recent investigation, but the scientist and the Foreign Ministry say he was not detained. The third scientist questioned last month was Yasin Chohan, another KRL director, who was allowed to return home in mid-December.

Days later, sources familiar with the investigation said Farooq was cooperating and had identified an Iranian based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, as the main link between the Pakistani scientists and Iran.

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