Abdul Qadeer Khan, a controversial figure known as the father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, has died with Covid-19 following a lengthy illness at the age of 85, the country’s interior minister said.
The scientist launched Pakistan on the path to becoming a nuclear weapons power in the early 1970s.
Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad said he died in hospital in Islamabad.
Thousands of people attended a state funeral at the Faisal Mosque in the capital. His body was carried by an honour guard and military and political dignitaries offered funeral prayers.
Flags in Pakistan also flew at half-mast.
Dr Khan was mired in controversy that began even before he returned to Pakistan from the Netherlands in the 1970s, where he had worked at a nuclear research facility.
He was later accused of stealing the centrifuge uranium enrichment technology from the Netherlands facility that he would later use to develop Pakistan’s first nuclear weapon, according to research by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Dr Khan, who held a doctorate in metallurgical engineering from the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, offered to launch Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme in 1974 after neighbour India carried out its first “peaceful nuclear explosion”.
He contacted then-prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, offering technology for Pakistan’s own nuclear weapons programme.
Still smarting from the 1971 loss of East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh, as well as the capture of 90,000 Pakistani soldiers by India, Mr Bhutto embraced the offer. He famously said: “We (Pakistanis) will eat grass, even go hungry, but we will have our own (nuclear bomb).”
Since then, Pakistan has relentlessly pursued its nuclear weapons programme in tandem with India. Both are declared nuclear weapons states after they carried out tit-for-tat nuclear weapons tests in 1998.
Pakistan’s nuclear programme and Dr Khan’s involvement have long been the subject of allegations and criticism.
The scientist was accused by the US of trading nuclear secrets to neighbour Iran and to North Korea in the 1990s after Washington sanctioned Pakistan for its nuclear weapons programme.
For 10 years during the Soviet occupation of neighbouring Afghanistan, successive US presidents certified that Pakistan was not developing nuclear weapons. The certification was necessary under American law to allow US aid to anti-communist rebels through Pakistan.
But in 1990, just months after the 1989 withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, Washington slapped Pakistan with crippling sanctions, ending all aid to the country, including military and humanitarian.
Pakistan was accused of selling nuclear weapons technology to North Korea in exchange for its No-Dong missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. A 2003 Congressional Research Report said that, while it was difficult to pinpoint the genesis of Pakistan’s nuclear co-operation with North Korea, it was likely to have begun in the mid-1990s.
At home in Pakistan, Dr Khan was heralded as a hero and the father of the nuclear bomb. Radical religious parties called him the father of the only Islamic nuclear bomb.
He was rejected by Pakistan’s dictator President General Pervez Musharraf after 2001, when details of Dr Khan’s alleged sales of nuclear secrets came under renewed scrutiny.
Dr Khan bitterly denounced Mr Musharraf and his attempt to distance the state from his activities, always denying that he had engaged in any secret selling or clandestine nuclear weapons technology exchanges.
In recent years, Dr Khan mostly lived out of the public eye.
Fellow scientists and Pakistani politicians paid tributes after his death.
Prime Minister Imran Khan said Dr Khan’s nuclear weapons programme “provided us security against an aggressive much larger nuclear neighbour. For the people of Pakistan he was a national icon.”
Fellow scientist Dr Samar Mubarakmand said Dr Khan was a national treasure who defied Western attempts to stifle Pakistan’s nuclear programme.
“It was unthinkable for the West that Pakistan would make any breakthrough but finally they had to acknowledge Dr Khan’s achievement of making the country’s nuclear weapons,” he said.
Dr Khan die at the KRL Hospital in the capital, Islamabad, after a protracted illness. He was being buried with state honours at a mosque in the capital on Sunday afternoon.