ISLAMABAD: The Pakistani scientist who sold nuclear secrets to Iran, North Korea and Libya, may try his hand at politics to rescue a country he says has become worse than a banana republic.
Abdul Qadeer Khan, still lionised as the father of Pakistan’s atomic bomb despite his fall from grace in 2004, may have some appeal ahead of elections due next year.
Many Pakistanis are deeply frustrated with their leaders over everything from chronic power cuts to their strategic ties with the United States, and they might welcome someone seen as a national hero on the political stage.
“I want to bring change and help the people of Pakistan, like I did back in 1974, when India test fired its nukes,” Khan told Reuters in an interview at his heavily guarded Islamabad home. “Now, today, once again this country needs my help.”
Khan’s new movement, Tehreek-e-Tahafuz Pakistan, or Movement For Protection of Pakistan, is urging the South Asian nation’s youth to be heard through national elections and break the stranglehold of traditional political dynasties.
The 76-year-old scientist says Pakistan’s young people should stop wasting time watching “useless” current affairs talk shows which dominate the airwaves every night and purge the country of corrupt politicians through the ballot box.
“The youth is 47 percent of this country’s population, they can bring the change,” said Khan, sitting in his study, near swords given to him by heads of state hanging on walls and Urdu poetry books on shelves.
“They should realise the importance of their vote and select those people in the next election who are clean.”
Khan was at the centre of the world’s biggest nuclear proliferation scandal in 2004 when he confessed to selling nuclear secrets to Iran, North Korea and Libya.
He was pardoned but placed under house arrest in 2004 by then president Pervez Musharraf. The government relaxed restrictions on him in 2009 but his movements are still limited.
There is a widespread belief in Pakistan that Khan was the victim of an international conspiracy against the country’s nuclear programme.
Pakistani authorities deny any connection to Khan’s smuggling ring but have never let foreigners question him. Many Pakistanis still hail Khan as the man who enabled Pakistan to respond to arch-rival India’s nuclear detonations with its own tests in 1998.
He fondly remembers working on Pakistan’s nuclear programme in the 1980s and how then military ruler General Zia ul-Haq once kissed him on his forehead when significant progress was made.
Khan said his movement would register as an official political party if it gained momentum. So far, it is winning support from businessmen in the commercial capital, Karachi, as well as from a religious party, students and others.
“Lots of army officers ... a large number, still believe that I have done my best for this country, they respect me,” he said.
“They know if I were not there, (the) Indians would have beaten them now.”
Khan appeared healthy and said he gets a check-up every day from a nurse. He said he gets up at 6:30 a.m., never misses prayers and reads newspapers and makes calls. In the afternoon, friends often drop by to see him, he said.
Khan seems determined to change what many see as a stale political landscape that has held the country back.
Civilian leaders are often preoccupied by power struggles or tension with the military, which has ruled the country for more than half of its 65-year history.
Critics say little attention is paid to a dizzying array of problems including a fragile economy, a stubborn Taliban insurgency, poor roads and infrastructure and an inadequate school system.
“All the previous promises have not come true. People are jobless. They have no food to feed themselves. This country is even worse then a banana republic,” said Khan.
Pakistan, created out of Muslim-majority areas in colonial India 65 years ago, could face the same fate as Arab states which were swept by revolts if more effective leaders were not elected, he said.
“Let me tell you to come out of the fantasy that nothing will happen to this country because it was conceived in the name of God,” he said.
“All the Arab and Middle East and other Muslim states were created with the same ideology but what happened to them?”
Khan says he has received invitations to lecture at universities and he intends to make road trips to visit supporters.
“So far, 1.5 million people from all over Pakistan have contacted us,” he said.
It’s not clear whether Khan will manage to translate his status as a national hero into votes, especially since he does no have total freedom of movement.
“I am at the moment only enticing people to come forward and bring change through their vote by selecting good people,” said Khan, who has a dog and nine cats, and feeds dozens of wild monkeys that descend on his garden and pool from nearby hills.
“It looks difficult but if people start joining bit-by-bit it can get successful.”