The man who made Pakistan into a nuclear power and later admitted leaking atomic secrets to Iran, North Korea and Libya walked out of his home after reaching a secret deal with the government to end years of de facto house arrest.
The decision to grant freedom of movement to Abdul Qadeer Khan stirred alarm in Washington, which worries that Iran has continued to pursue nuclear arms and that Pakistan may not be able to safeguard its own arsenal in the face of rising Islamic militancy.
The White House said US President Barack Obama wanted assurances from Pakistan that Khan wasn’t involved in the activity that led to his arrest. US State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said Khan remained a “serious proliferation risk.”
Asked on Friday what the international community would think of his release, Khan was typically defiant.
“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. Obama cares about America, not about Pakistan or India or Afghanistan.”
Khan said he had no plans to return to the nuclear field.
Khan’s wife said her husband would remain under some restrictions, including a gag order.
While the 72-year-old scientist is a pariah in the West, he is a national hero for his pivotal role in developing the nuclear bomb for Pakistan and was lionized by Islamists for making it the world’s only Muslim nuclear power.
He was detained in December 2003, however, and admitted on television in early 2004 that he operated a network that spread nuclear weapons technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya.
Khan was immediately pardoned by former Pakistani president general Pervez Musharraf and placed under de facto house arrest.
Unanswered questions remain about the technology that Khan allegedly shared and with whom he shared it, and whether Pakistani authorities knew what he was doing or profited from sales.
Khan began agitating for an end to the restrictions on him after Musharraf was ousted last year. In recent months, he has been allowed to occasionally meet friends outside his house and has spoken to reporters over the phone. The Islamabad High Court announced on Friday he was a “free citizen,” subject to a confidential accord struck with the government.
Hours later, 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 be discussing Pakistan’s secretive atomic bomb program or who else might have been involved in leaking its technology around the world — questions that still puzzle investigators trying to establish the extent of his network’s activities and whether it is still in business.
“We don’t want to talk about the past things,” Khan said as the guards who enforced his long isolation stood aside for a throng of TV crews and journalists.
Government prosecutor Amjad Iqbal Qureshi said the decision to loosen restrictions on Khan was the result of a compromise with Pakistani authorities and that “security measures” for Khan would remain. The government has denied that Khan was under arrest, maintaining the restrictions were to protect him and Pakistan’s state secrets.