ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Abdul Qadeer Khan, the scientist who helped Pakistan develop nuclear weapons and allegedly leaked atomic secrets to North Korea, Iran and Libya, was freed from years of de facto house arrest Friday by a high court ruling.
The United States, which worries that Iran has used Pakistani know-how in pursuit of nuclear arms, said the scientist’s release would be “extremely regrettable.”
State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said Khan remained a “serious proliferation risk.” He said the United States was still trying to confirm Khan’s official status.
On Friday, a smiling Khan emerged from his house in the Pakistani capital and addressed reporters face-to-face for the first time since 2004. He said he would not discuss Pakistan’s atomic bomb program or talk about who was involved in leaking its secrets around the world.
Khan, the architect of Pakistan’s nuclear program, took sole responsibility in 2004 for leaking the nuclear secrets but was immediately pardoned by former President Pervez Musharraf and placed under de facto house arrest. The government insists neither it nor the Pakistani military was aware of his activities.
The 72-year-old scientist, who has suffered a string of illnesses, began agitating for an end to the restrictions after last year’s ouster of Musharraf. Over the past year, he has been allowed to occasionally meet friends outside his house and has often spoken to reporters over the phone.
In response to an appeal by his lawyers, the Islamabad High Court declared Khan “a free citizen” on Friday. The court said other details of the order were confidential.
Government prosecutor Amjad Iqbal Qureshi said the decision was the result of a compromise with the government and that “security measures” for Khan would remain. The government has never said that Khan was under house arrest, maintaining he was being held for his own security.
“At least I have got my freedom. I can move around,” Khan said.
Khan is lionized by conservatives and Islamists for making Pakistan the world’s only Muslim nuclear power and is a hero to many ordinary citizens.
Asked Friday what the international community would think of his release, Khan struck a typically defiant tone.
“Are they happy with our God? Are they happy with our prophet? Are they happy with our leader? Never,” he said. “I don’t care about rest of the world. I care about my country. (President Barack) Obama cares about America, not about Pakistan or India or Afghanistan.”