ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The Pakistani government on Friday freed Abdul Qadeer Khan, the scientist accused of selling nuclear secrets, after five years of house arrest, a step that the Obama administration called "extremely regrettable."
Khan, a highly popular figure in Pakistan as the "father" of its nuclear bomb, confessed in 2004 to selling nuclear secrets to Iran, North Korea and Libya. The Pakistani government pardoned him but confined him to his home under heavy guard. He later retracted his confession.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was "very much concerned" about Khan's release. Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said Khan "remains a serious proliferation risk" and that releasing him would be "extremely regrettable." White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that President Barack Obama wanted assurances from Pakistan that the scientist wouldn't be involved in nuclear proliferation.
It appeared that there was a secret deal between Khan and the Pakistani government, which a Pakistani court endorsed.
Never miss a local story.
In an interview after Friday's court judgment, the 72-year-old metallurgist told McClatchy that he had no plans to travel abroad or to engage in domestic politics. Looking relaxed and healthy, he strolled in the front garden of his villa in Islamabad, which he shares with his Dutch wife and granddaughter, playing with a pet dog and receiving well-wishers.
He also indicated that he'd continue to be under security surveillance.
"It's a nice feeling; the worry is gone. I can lead a normal life now as a normal citizen. It's a fine feeling," he said by telephone.
Khan's release could affect U.S. aid to Pakistan, even as a proposal for some $15 billion in assistance comes before Congress. Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Congress would take the action into account as it drafted the legislation for aid to Pakistan.
Pakistan's action put a cloud over the maiden visit of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, Obama's special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, who will arrive in Islamabad next week.
After many years of investigation, Western intelligence agencies uncovered Khan's nuclear trading network by late 2003. The U.S. government put enormous pressure on Pakistan, which fired him as the head of its weapons program and arrested him.
Khan is a national hero in Pakistan for spearheading the nuclear weapons program, and many Pakistanis think that the development of the bomb has saved the country from attack by archrival India, so his release Friday was a popular move.
Khan's lawyers argued in court that his detention had no legal basis. Under the previous government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Khan had little chance of a successful challenge, but the civilian government has been open to freeing him.
The scientist said he'd now devote himself to working in the education sector and other philanthropic activities. His lawyer, Ali Zafar, said: "The court has said as he was not involved in nuclear proliferation or criminal activity, (and) there is no case against him, therefore he is a free citizen."
The court said Khan had been freed under the terms of a "mutual agreement" between the scientist and the government but gave no details. Khan apparently agreed to continue having state-provided security; intelligence agents and army personnel have guarded him up to now.
"Security will be OK. Security was there before, and it will be there. In a sense I'm not a normal person, so they have to provide some security, some sort of cover, so nobody can do any mischief," Khan told McClatchy.
Pakistan hasn't allowed foreign investigators to question Khan and said it had passed on all relevant information about nuclear proliferation. That barrier to foreign questioning apparently will remain. "The so-called A.Q. Khan affair is a closed chapter," Pakistan's Foreign Ministry said Friday.
It's widely thought that Khan worked with members of the Pakistani military in his proliferation activities, and he's previously hinted that he was made a scapegoat for others.
In 2007, a United Nations nuclear watchdog said that Khan's network had been active in 12 countries. Last month, the State Department imposed sanctions on 13 individuals — two of them British — and three companies for involvement in Khan's network.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY