A Maryland businessman was sentenced Friday to more than three years in prison for conspiring to export to Pakistan materials and equipment that can be used in nuclear reactors and defrauding the United States.
Nadeem Akhtar, 46, of Silver Spring, was sentenced in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. Akhtar, one-time owner of Computer Communications USA of Columbia, was charged with trying to sell more than $400,000 in radiation detectors, calibration devices and other restricted nuclear-related equipment to Pakistan.
The U.S. has restricted exports to Pakistan’s civilian and military nuclear programs, but Akhtar misrepresented what items he was selling and to whom they would be sold, U.S. Attorney for Maryland Rod Rosenstein said.
According to the U.S., Akhtar bought goods subject to export restrictions from companies in North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Massachusetts, Tennessee and Texas, then used false-end user certificates to ship them through front companies in Dubai and elsewhere to Pakistan.
Akhtar admitted evading export regulations by using Computer Communications USA to buy, or try to buy, radiation detection devices, resins for coolant water purification, calibration and switching equipment, attenuators and surface refinishing abrasives.
According to his plea agreement, Akhtar acted on the orders of the owner of a Karachi trading company, who received orders from organizations or individuals in the Pakistani government. The Karachi trader told Akhtar what to buy and how to conceal the products’ nature and intended end-user, the plea said, then usually paid Akhtar a commission of 5 percent to 7.5 percent.
His customers included Pakistan’s Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission and the Chinese-built Chashma Nuclear Power Plant I, both subject to U.S. export restrictions, according to the Justice Department.
Akhtar is a Pakistani national and permanent resident of the U.S. His sentencing comes at a time when relations between the U.S. and Pakistan have been severely strained by everything from the raid last spring that killed Osama bin Laden to NATO’s accidental killing of 24 Pakistani border troops in November.
It also comes at a time of rising concern in the U.S. about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Western experts say Pakistan has about 100 nuclear weapons and is in the midst of a rapid expansion of that arsenal.
David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington said at least some of the goods Akhtar admitted exporting could have been used at the Khushab Nuclear Complex. Albright’s institute has identified Khushab as a center for the production of plutonium for nuclear weapons.
Albright said the goods could also be used at a suspected reprocessing facility at Chashma, another suspected weapons facility.
Pakistan, which has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, was hit with U.S. sanctions after it developed nuclear weapons in secret and conducted its first nuclear test in 1998.
Abdul Qadeer Khan, the architect of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, has been accused of running a nuclear black market ring that sold weapons technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya. The ring operated for years before it was disrupted in 2003.
U.S. experts say Pakistan is the key to stabilizing Afghanistan after U.S. and NATO forces leave. They say Islamabad’s continuing cooperation will be critical to efforts to prevent mischief by the remnants of al Qaida and dozens of homegrown jihadi groups that call Pakistan’s wild tribal regions home.
But securing Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal against the diversion or theft of a warhead or weapons-usable material may be an even bigger concern. A 2010 Harvard study found that Pakistan’s arsenal “faces a greater threat from Islamic extremists seeking nuclear weapons than any other nuclear stockpile on earth.”
There is some quiet cooperation between the two nations on securing those weapons. The U.S. has provided Islamabad with millions worth of aid to protect its weapons, including money for intrusion detection systems, advice on designing tiered defenses and training.
But U.S. officials say Islamabad has refused to give the U.S. access to sensitive sites or agree to any formal plan for joint action in an emergency.
“We’d love to be able to help Pakistan, but there’s certainly no formal agreement to do that,” Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., the chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, told The Associated Press in a recent interview.
Rick Shimon, Special Agent in Charge of the Commerce Department’s Washington Office of Export Enforcement, said the case highlighted the U.S. determination to disrupt proliferation networks.
“Preventing sensitive U.S.-origin technology from being used in illicit nuclear programs is one of our top priorities at the Commerce Department,” he said.
Pakistan’s military said Friday it is training 8,000 additional security personnel for its nuclear arsenal, which the U.S. fears might be stolen or diverted or Islamist militants.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that if the Pakistani Taliban forces topple the government, they would “have the keys to the nuclear arsenal.”
“We can’t even contemplate that,” she added.
Those fears were heightened by a recent U.S. report that quoted unnamed Pakistani and American officials as saying Pakistan transports nuclear weapons components around the country in delivery vans with little security to avoid detection — a claim denied by Islamabad.
Pakistan insists its nuclear arsenal is well-defended, and the widespread fear among many Pakistanis is that the main threat stems not from al-Qaida or the Taliban, but from suspected U.S. plans to seize the country’s weapons. These fears were heightened by the covert U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May.