ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Feb. 6, 2009 — -- Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani scientist considered the largest nuclear proliferator in history, was released from home confinement today and lashed out at the West for the first time.
"Are they happy with our God? Are they happy with our prophet? Are they happy with our leaders? Never," Khan, 72, told a group of journalists outside his home, just minutes after a court ruled he was free to move around the country. "So why should we bother what they say about us?
"I would be more worried what you [the media] say about me," Khan said. "Not what Bush says or Dick Cheney says. I damn don't care."
In Pakistan, Khan is a hero, the man who created the world's only Islamic nuclear state. But in 2004, he admitted selling nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya, and has been mostly restricted to his home in an upscale area of Islamabad ever since.
Just a few weeks ago, the U.S. sanctioned Khan as well as 12 colleagues and three companies linked to his proliferation work to "prevent future proliferation-related activities."
"We believe A.Q. Khan remains a serious proliferation risk," State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said in Washington today. "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."
Pakistan has never allowed Western officials to question Khan. And there were signs that the United States bristled at the news of his release, which was secured by the Interior Ministry and then conveyed through an Islamabad court. The United States was not informed about the ruling before it occurred.
Until today, the scientist was not known for speaking ill of the West.
Asked by ABC News what he would say to those who argue he has made the world more dangerous, Khan replied, "I don't care about the rest of the world. I care about my country.
"Obama cares about America -- not about Pakistan, or India, Afghanistan, or anyone else," he said. "I have made Pakistan a safer place. That you are standing here and talking, and India not blowing on your neck, this is my contribution."
For years, Khan has been removed from Pakistan's nuclear program, even before his 2004 admission. But many today expressed a fear that letting his house arrest expire is tantamount to encouraging other nuclear proliferators.
"His release is not going to make a material difference. On the other hand, it could make a psychological one," said Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, the chairman of the physics department at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad. "If the penalties for spreading weapons are going to be slight, well, I guess other people could also do it."
Khan has been accused of running a nuclear smuggling ring that offered "one-stop shopping for a nuclear arsenal," in the words of David Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security and a former U.N. weapons inspector.
The U.S. accuses Khan of providing Iran and Libya with the components and designs for centrifuges, which are required to produce highly enriched uranium -- one of the most difficult ingredients involved in the creation of a nuclear weapon. In some cases, the U.S. has said, Khan provided Iran and Libya with entire centrifuges.
The U.S. has also accused Khan of providing designs, equipment and technology to North Korea.
"With the assistance of Khan's network, countries could leapfrog the slow, incremental stages of other nuclear weapons development programs," the State Department alleged when it slapped its first sanctions on Khan last month.
The extent of Khan's international network and the sheer physical presence of some of the materials he sold have led many to believe he was supported by the Pakistani state, something the government have vociferously denied. Khan himself claimed he had sold equipment to North Korea with the full knowledge of the military, then headed by President Pervez Musharraf.
"These centrifuges weighed something like half a ton each. You can't put them in your coat pocket and walk away with them," Hoodbhoy said. "It obviously involved a lot of official support. ... If there were aircraft of the Pakistan air force that flew these centrifuges out -- well, obviously there had to be somebody at the top who was also involved."
It was not clear whether Khan would be allowed to travel completely freely. He told journalists he would have to seek permission to travel outside the country and said he was free to move around inside. His wife told reporters that the government still held his passport.
But the court ruling that freed him has been kept secret. According to people who had read it, the ruling was particularly short and referred to an agreement not included in the ruling itself and so far kept out of the public view.
Asked about the conditions of his release, Khan told ABC News, "No conditions. Only have to take care of the security."
Khan lives next to a house full of intelligence agents who keep a very close watch on him, and throughout the news conferences today, intelligence agents were always just a few steps away.
It was about noon when Khan sauntered out of his home to greet a group of waiting journalists, stopping to pet his dog before casually answering questions. He looked relaxed and was about to start a third news conference in less than an hour when he received a call on his mobile phone.
The caller, reported to be the Interior Ministry chief, seemed to tell Khan to stop speaking to the press: After the call, Khan declined to answer more questions and returned to his house, leaving reporters on the other side of the gate.
Around Islamabad, though, residents were more than happy to praise a man each called a "hero." Many also praised a government whose policies have become increasingly popular lately.
"If we didn't have an atom bomb, would we have been so secure?" asked Reza Mohammad as he shopped for food in an Islamabad market. "America would have eaten us like Iraq and swallowed us like Afghanistan. India would have been sitting on top of our heads. We have two powers protecting us. One is Allah. And the other is atomic power."
Asked whether he was proud of everything he had done, Khan did not hesitate to answer.
"I will always be proud of what I did for Pakistan," he said. "Always."