ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan's new civilian government in Pakistan is reviewing whether to release A.Q. Khan, the renegade scientist who has been under house arrest since confessing to running an international black market in nuclear technology.
Freeing him would be enormously popular in Pakistan, where he is hailed as the "father of the Islamic bomb," but it would alarm the United States and other Western countries, which have accused him of selling nuclear secrets to Iran, Libya and North Korea.
Pakistan's foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, gave the first hint earlier this week, when he said in a television interview: "I do not want to see his movements restricted as they've been in the past. He is a respected Pakistani."
Qureshi, who is known for weighing his words, said Khan "should be allowed to see friends, to go for a drive and to go have a meal at a restaurant. I see no reason why we should deprive him of that."
Khan has been under house arrest in Islamabad since January 2004, when he admitted his proliferation activities in an address on national television. He has been kept under tight security, allowed neither visitors nor communication with the outside world. Cars are not even permitted to slow down outside his villa in an upscale neighborhood of Islamabad.
But, in the last few days, he was allowed to give telephone interviews to several reporters, in which he said he hoped that the new government would lift his "unlawful" detention. Khan blamed his captivity on Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, whose allies lost in the elections in February.
He used the occasion to boast: "I saved the country for the first time when I made Pakistan a nuclear nation and saved it again when I confessed and took the whole blame on myself," he told a French news agency reporter. The implication that he covered up for others also involved in the illicit trade may not help his cause. The remark is understood to have alarmed officials.
Musharraf announced that he had forgiven Khan shortly after his confession, and the government has never charged him with any crime. Khan began a clandestine program to develop nuclear weapons for Pakistan in the 1970s, primarily to compete with bitter rival India. The project resulted in the testing of the country's nuclear bomb in 1998.
His incarceration is an emotional subject in Pakistan, with a wide swath of political opinion in favor of not only freeing him, but treating him as a national hero. At least one Islamist party has called for making him the next president.
"If he (Khan) has done anything wrong, there should be due process of law," said Khawaja Mohammad Asif, a Cabinet minister in the coalition government. "He has just been shut up, like the judges." He was referring to the judges whom Musharraf fired and put under house arrest late last year.
Khan realizes that he would never be allowed to go abroad, said an associate of the nuclear scientist, but he wants the freedom to travel within Pakistan, see family members in the southern city of Karachi, shop and eat out in Islamabad, and stay sometimes at his lakeside home, which is just outside the capital.
"He knows he's not going to be allowed to attend diplomatic parties but he wants to be able to keep a low-profile, more normal life," said the associate, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject. "He's just been detained on a presidential fiat."
If the government does not come to Khan's aid, now that democratic rule has been restored and an independent judiciary is promised, Khan is also ready to go to the courts, the associate said.
Freedom for Khan will not translate into more access by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations nuclear watchdog, or foreign governments.
Pakistani authorities have blocked the United States and international agencies from questioning Khan about his shadowy multimillion-dollar deals with rogue states, and that will remain the case. Many foreign officials suspect that he acted with knowledge, or complicity, of sections of the Pakistani state, including military personnel.
Pakistan's foreign office spokesman, Mohammad Sadiq, said Thursday: "Whatever we had to share with the international community, we have shared that. It is a closed case."
Analysts said that the international community would react negatively to news that Khan had been freed but it is unclear whether Pakistan would face any penalties because it is such an important U.S. ally in its anti-terror fight.
"I would find (Khan's release) very disturbing," said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington and a former nuclear weapons inspector.
"To me, it would be a signal that part of government is not willing to protect nuclear assets, that it starts to believe the crap about Khan that he perpetuates — that he a victim, that he's a national hero. In fact, he is a traitor."