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The Dutch photographer who exposed Pakistan's nuclear smuggling ring

WORLD
By Standard Reporter | May 7th 2021
Pakistan was running a big nuclear smuggling ring from its diplomatic missions. [Courtesy]

Frits Veerman, a professional photographer in Amsterdam, was one of the first to ring warning bells about Pakistan stealing nuclear documents, materials and technology to build its own nuclear bomb.

But the Dutch whistleblower warnings were brushed aside, he was forced to keep quiet, sacked and harassed to no end for speaking the truth. In a just world, he should have been hailed as an icon of courage. He died in relative obscurity recently, reported modern diplomacy.

Fabien Baussart, in an article in Modern Diplomacy, stated that his story will, however, continue to live, a story of courage to speak out in a world where truth often falls to realpolitik.

Pakistan was running a big nuclear smuggling ring from its diplomatic missions and other agencies, governments and security officials in different parts of the world chose to look the other way. In fact, many connived in the colossal thievery.

They knew what Abdul Qadeer Khan and his associates were doing but business and political interests trumped over reason, wrote Baussart.

Veerman discovered the Pakistani game when he was a young professional photographer in Amsterdam. He used to work at a consultancy firm, FDO (FysischDynamisch Onderzoek), as a technical photographer.

An important client of FDO was Ultra Centrifuge Netherlands which was part of a top-secret project run by a consortium of Dutch, British and German scientists at a nuclear plant in Almelo.

In May 1972, Pakistani scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan joined the team as a translator of technical documents. He soon became friends with Frits Veerman. He took pictures of centrifuges for him, reported Modern Diplomacy.

Khan quickly expanded his circle of friends and he would freely access areas at the nuclear plant which were hitherto prohibited. It was sometime in 1973, a year after the Pakistani joined the consultancy firm, that Veerman had his first doubts.

Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. [Reuters]

He thought there was something fishy about the manner in which the Khan was charming his way through the rank and file of the establishment.

It was two years later that Veerman's suspicions became stronger. He realised that the young Pakistani was in fact a thug-he was stealing classified papers from the plant. This happened one day when he went to Khan's house near Schiphol airport for dinner, reported Modern Diplomacy.

He saw top-secret centrifuge drawings lying around in Pakistani scientist's house. They were supposed to be at the plant and locked up in vaults.

Khan asked him to photograph the documents for him but Veerman refused. He also happened to overhear a telephonic conversation between the Pakistani and his old professor in Leuven about sensitive centrifuge matters.

Veerman lost no time in reporting the matter to his superiors. His seniors heard him out and told him to keep quiet. He was asked not to speak about what he saw and found to anyone, wrote Baussart.

In late 1975, when Khan realised that he was coming under greater scrutiny from a multitude of agencies, he flew back to Pakistan.

What many did not realise for some time was that Khan had smuggled out precious drawings and a no less useful rolodex of key suppliers of nuclear material and technology in Europe and elsewhere, reported modern diplomacy.

Less than a year after Khan fled Amsterdam, FDO held a meeting on the issue where Veerman repeated his assertion that Khan was a spy. Veerman later gave a statement about Khan to Dutch police. But, as Veerman were to find out later, his blunt accusations did not endear him to his superiors or others in the government.

In fact, the nuclear consortium and consultancy firm, FDO, were delighted when Khan sent his emissaries with a long list of items and work, he wanted to contract to European firms. Soon after, Khan's technicians began arriving at FDO to take "a course in 'how to build an ultracentrifuge'', Veerman commented.

In 1978, Veerman lost his job. No reasons were given but he knew he was being sacrificed for speaking out against Khan's smuggling ring and the complicity of the nuclear plant officials as well as government authorities.

Pakistan's medium-range nuclear-capable Hatf-IV Shaheen-I missile takes off from an undisclosed location towards the pre-target point, December 8, 2004. [Reuters]

The powerful nuclear industry lobby did not want any investigation because it would have exposed its laxity and complicity. The government too was not keen on any probe because it would have been embarrassing and would have impacted diplomatic relations with some countries. So, they all kept quiet. The one man who spoke was asked to shut up, wrote Baussart.

The state chose to punish him further-he was put on an international watch list and for many years questioned by police whenever he travelled abroad. He was stalked by the police.

It was only in 2016 that his role in breaking the world's most dangerous nuclear smuggling network was acknowledged by the authorities.

The Whistleblowers Authority, a Dutch institution created in 2016, came to the conclusion that Veerman was unfairly treated at the time, as it considered it likely that whistleblowing was the reason for firing him in 1978.

A recent report of the Huis voor Klokkenluiders, the Dutch Whistleblowers Authority, showed that the agency had finally absolved Veerman of any charges.

Veerman's honesty and tenacity saved the world from dangerous Pakistan. His act of courage deserves international recognition, said Baussart. 

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