REUTERS - A Pakistani court declared disgraced nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan free on Friday, ending five years of house arrest for the man at the center of the world's most serious proliferation scandal.
Khan, revered by many Pakistanis as the father of the country's atomic bomb, confessed to selling nuclear secrets to Iran, North Korea and Libya in 2004, but was immediately pardoned by the government, although his movements were restricted to effective house arrest.
"It's a matter of joy. The judgment, by the grace of Allah, is good," Khan told reporters outside his Islamabad house soon after news of the High Court ruling broke.
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was "very much concerned" about Khan's release. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said President Barack Obama wanted assurances from Pakistan that the scientist would not be involved in nuclear proliferation.
State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said the United States believed Khan "remains a serious proliferation risk."
"The proliferation support that Khan and his associates provided to Iran and North Korea has had a harmful impact on international security and will for years to come," Duguid said.
The Pakistani government declined to comment on the court decision but said as a responsible nuclear-armed state, it had taken all necessary measures to promote the goal of non-proliferation.
"The so-called A. Q. Khan affair is a closed chapter," the Foreign Ministry said.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, when asked what sort of message Khan's release would send to the new U.S. administration given its concerns about proliferation, told Reuters at a security conference in Munich:
"A.Q. Khan is history as far as we are concerned. The government of Pakistan has extracted the information that is required. We have successfully broken the network that he had set up and today he has no say and has no access to any of these sensitive areas of Pakistan."
“No travel plans except Mecca”
Khan, 72, who has been treated for prostate cancer, said he had finished his nuclear work and wanted to devote his time to education. He said he had no plan to travel abroad apart from Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, for a pilgrimage.
Qureshi said it would be a "political" decision whether Khan would be allowed to travel, but added: "He's an old man and a sick man and I wonder if he can travel than much. I am not aware of what his plans are. But I wonder if he would want to leave the country, where would he want to go?"
Khan himself said he did not care what foreign governments thought. "I am obliged to answer only to my government not to any foreigners," he told reporters. "I will always be proud about what I did for Pakistan."
Khan's detention had been relaxed over the past year; he was allowed to meet friends and traveled to Karachi at least once under tight security. He also gave media interviews after a new government came to power in March but was barred from speaking to reporters by a July court ruling.
Khan's lawyer Ali Zafar said the High Court had declared he was not involved in nuclear proliferation or criminal activity and there was no case against him. "The court has ordered that he's a free man," Zafar told Reuters.
Islamabad had long maintained that Khan was not officially under house arrest but was being held for his own security.
Pakistan has never let foreign investigators question Khan, saying it had passed on all relevant information about his nuclear proliferation.
U.S. and international experts investigating proliferation still want to question Khan. A U.N. nuclear watchdog said last year Khan's network smuggled nuclear blueprints to Iran, Libya and North Korea and was active in 12 countries.
The U.S. State Department said last month it had imposed sanctions on 13 individuals and three private companies because of their involvement in Khan's network.
Khan would still need security but from now on he had to agree to it, his lawyer, Zafar, told Reuters.
"What used to happen was that under the garb of security, Dr. Khan was kept under detention," he said. "What the court has done is say 'yes, he is entitled to state protection but it has to be by mutual consent, it can't be imposed protection.'"