Street protests and heated debate erupted this weekend in Pakistan, following the president's admission Friday that some of the nation's scientists may have sold nuclear technologies to other countries. The official credence given to the allegations, long denied by the government, is dividing national loyalties between President Pervez Musharraf and the so-called father of the Islamic bomb, Abdul Qadeer Khan.
Dubbed as "national heroes" after Pakistan conducted nuclear tests in 1998, Mr. Khan and his close aides have been the subject of an ongoing government investigation into possible dealings with Iran and Libya. Sensitive to the scientists' popular status, the government had moved forward gingerly with the probe.
Once again risking domestic upheaval to satisfy the international community, Mr. Musharraf distanced the state from the alleged proliferation deals, which he said were done by the scientists for their own financial gain.
"There is no evidence that any government personality or military personality was involved in this at all," Musharraf told CNN Friday. He vowed to take stern action against those who passed along nuclear information. He said the ongoing investigation would be completed within a few week and "based on the result of the investigation we will move against violators because they are enemies of the state."
While analysts see the pinning of blame on the scientists alone as a bid by Pakistan to minimize concerns abroad, the acknowledgement is bound to invite greater scrutiny of its nuclear program.
"Whether the transfer of technology took place by the state or by individuals, in either case, harm will come to Pakistan's nuclear program," says physicist, A. H. Nayyar, a physicist at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad. "Now the international community will try to check and monitor every aspect of it," he says. "Otherwise they can impose sanctions. They would want to make sure Pakistan's nuclear program is in safe hands and the technology cannot be passed onto rogue states in future."
Pakistan's three decades old "covert" nuclear program generated serious controversies in November last year when the United Nation's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) found evidence that some Pakistani scientists might have aided the neighboring country of Iran in developing its nuclear program
Western intelligence sources say Pakistani scientists also traded uranium enrichment technology with North Korea and Libya, apart from Iran.
Independent scientists say the international nuclear body provided the list of at least five people involved in the alleged transfer, including scientists associated with the Kahuta Research Laboratories (KRL), a uranium enrichment plant just outside the capital city of Islamabad.
As head of the lab, Khan is facing questioning but has not been arrested. Last week, his residence on the foothills of Margalla Hills in Islamabad was raided to detain his close associates.
Officials say nine scientists are now in custody. Included among them are Khan's former confidant at KRL, Mohammad Farooq, his personal staff officer, retired Maj. Islam-ul Haq, and retired Brigadier Tajawar.
Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and other investigating agencies are probing the allegations against the "suspected scientists and individuals" for their role in transferring technology to Iran.
Also forced into the limelight is Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg, who held the post of Pakistan's army chief of staff during the late 1980s and early 1990s, and is alleged to have played role in the transfer of technology to Iran. He is reported to have suggested to the former prime minister of Pakistan, Mian Nawaz Sharif, that Iran was willing to pay a hefty price in the trade.
But General Beg denied the allegations telling reporters, "It is a pack of lies. These are elements conspiring against our nuclear program, and we should not bow down to the pressure. We should not humiliate our scientists under any pressure."
Sources say the investigators are screening the foreign bank accounts of Khan and other individuals, their relatives and "close friends" in the Gulf States, and looking for evidence that the transactions made through these accounts were for transfer of technology.
The nuclear controversy has taken on political implications. The main opposition parties are against the screening of suspected nuclear scientists, while the religious extremist parties alliance, the Muttahida Majlis Amal (MMA) are carrying out protest rallies. The siblings of detained scientists are holding press conferences in an attempt to further pressure Musharraf.
"It is humiliation of our national heroes," says a religious leader, Mairaj-ul Huda Siddiqui. "The government has declared our heroes as foes to appease the US, forced us to come into the streets. We will die but will not let our country's nuclear program be rolled back."
If proved guilty, some of the scientists would face disciplinary action, and could be tried in open courts. Some analysts see the turmoil in the nuclear program as an opportunity to bring in a more accountable group of scientists.
Mr. Nayar suggests that scientists not involved with the program could be assembled to "evolve a system in which even a kilo of enriched uranium is accounted for and the [oversight] committee is certified by the IAEA." He adds that such moves would "regain the lost credibility of the nuclear program in the eyes of the international community."