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A.Q. Khan, Pakistani nuclear scientist, freed by Pakistan court

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Reporting from Istanbul, Turkey, and Islamabad, Pakistan -- A Pakistani court today freed nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan from unofficial house arrest, capping a rehabilitation that began almost from the moment he confessed in 2004 to providing sensitive nuclear technology to rogue regimes around the world.

Khan, considered the father of Pakistan's nuclear program, held a jubilant impromptu news conference with his lawyer outside his home on a leafy, tree-lined street in the Pakistani capital. "I have got my freedom," he told reporters shortly after a ruling by the Islamabad High Court.

The full text of the ruling was not released, but a short statement confirmed that the court had declared Khan a "free citizen." His lawyer, Ali Zafer, said he had been cleared of all charges, but the court document made no such reference.

Pakistani officials suggested some restrictions on Khan's movements might remain in place. Prosecutor Amjad Iqbal Qureshi said the 72-year-old scientist, who suffers from a variety of ailments including prostate cancer, would be subject to unspecified "security measures," and his lawyer said he was willing to accept having guards for personal protection.

The issue is clouded by the fact that the government never formally acknowledged Khan was under house arrest, though guards outside his villa for the past five years have curtailed his comings and goings and screened his guests. Last year, however, Khan was allowed some limited travel privileges, including a trip to the port city of Karachi, and he began granting telephone interviews to Pakistani media.

While widely viewed in the West as a disgraced figure responsible for disseminating secret nuclear technology to dangerous regimes in Iran, North Korea and Libya, Khan is regarded by many Pakistanis as a national hero.

After confessing on Pakistani TV five years ago to his involvement in the international nuclear black market, Khan was pardoned by then-President Pervez Musharraf and largely confined to his home.

Pakistan has consistently refused to make Khan available for questioning by international nuclear regulatory authorities and other investigators, a policy that has been kept in place by the new civilian government.

Asked by reporters at his home today about his role in leaking atomic secrets, Khan said: "We don't want to talk about the past."

Repercussions of Khan's activities have continued to the present. As recently as last month, more than a dozen companies and individuals were sanctioned by the U.S. State Department over ties with his technology-smuggling network.

In interviews he granted during house arrest, Khan has been unrepentant, saying the Musharraf government was aware of his activities and he had been made a scapegoat. Today, he again described himself as a patriot.

"I don't care about the rest of the world," he said. "I care about my country.... I will always be proud of what I did for Pakistan."

laura.king@latimes.com

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