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Handling of Nuclear Technology Debated in Pakistani Parliament

By Salman Masood and David Rohde

The New York Times -- ISLAMABAD, Pakistan

Ten days after President Pervez Musharraf pardoned Pakistan’s top nuclear scientist for sharing nuclear technology with Iran, North Korea and Libya, the upper house of Parliament debated the issue for the first time on Monday night.

Musharraf’s government has rebuffed requests from opposition political parties to call a joint session of Parliament to discuss the issue. The result was an intense four-and-a-half-hour debate in the usually staid Pakistani Senate.

Opposition parties accused the military-dominated government of hiding the army’s role in the proliferation scheme; humiliating the scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan; appeasing the United States; and bypassing the elected legislators.

“We are moving toward a massive whitewash,” said Raza Rabbani of the Pakistan People’s Party, “so that responsibility can be placed on one person or a group while others get away scot-free.”

But members of a pro-Musharraf party said the nuclear scandal was a “sensitive issue” that should not be politicized. They said Musharraf, who is an army general, had made wise decisions, and they accused the opposition of sensationalizing the issue and ignoring global realities.

“We have to decide,” said Sheik Rashid Ahmed, the government’s information minister. “Do we want to walk with the world or do we want to fight with the world?”

The debate came on a day when rumors that Khan had suffered a heart attack briefly drove down prices on the Karachi Stock Exchange. Many Pakistanis appear to continue to consider Khan a national hero and to say that the charges against him were fabricated.

Government officials said the reports were baseless.

But relatives of six of Khan’s aides who have been detained by the government said in a news conference on Monday that the scientist was in poor health.

“One thing is very clear -- that he is very ill,” said Ehsam-Ul-Haq, the brother of Khan’s longtime principal staff officer. “We have no information about what kinds of medicines are being administered to Dr. Khan.”

The 67-year-old scientist has been under virtual house arrest for the last two weeks. Security agents, including soldiers, surround his house in Islamabad. On Friday, a man guarding the house said that the government has barred Khan from meeting visitors for ten days.

Members of a coalition of hard-line religious parties have asked repeatedly that Khan be allowed to address a news conference. The day before Musharraf pardoned Khan, he read a statement on national television in which he said he was responsible for all the proliferation that occurred.

Maulana Samiul Haq, a leader of the religious coalition, contended that the government used Khan to cover up the army’s role in the proliferation. “Dr. A.Q. Khan was made a scapegoat to save the generals of that time,” he said.

But a pro-Musharraf senator who served as the chief of the country’s powerful military intelligence agency in the mid-1990s said military intelligence played no role in providing security at the Khan Research Laboratories, the country’s top secret nuclear facility named after Khan.

The senator, Javed Ashraf Qazi, said that the director general of the agency, Inter Services Intelligence, needed Khan’s permission to visit the laboratories.