President Pervaiz Musharraf has pardoned the founder of Pakistan’s nuclear programme for selling atomic weapons technology to rogue states.
The move to acquit Abdul Qadeer Khan had been widely expected after the scientist made a full confession on national television yesterday.
Mr Khan, a national icon, said he had peddled documents showing how to build nuclear weapons to some of the most anti-Western states, including Libya, Iran and North Korea.
His confession came after he was shown with Mr Musharraf with his head bowed, asking for forgiveness.
“There is a written mercy appeal from his side and there is a written pardon from my side,” Mr Musharraf told reporters.
However, Western diplomats and Mr Musharraf’s critics have accused the Pakistani leader of making Khan a scapegoat for a government-backed policy of selling nuclear secrets.
Khan said in his confession that he took “full responsibility” for the trade in documents and diplomats believe he has been publicly humiliated to avoid an embarrassing trial.
Mr Musharraf added suspicions that Khan did not act alone by saying that members of the International Atomic Energy Agency would not be allowed to inspect the documents sold by the scientist.
“This is a sovereign country,” he said. “No document will be given. No independent investigation will take place here.”
He also warned Pakistani journalists not to publish claims that the government was behind the trade.
“All the proliferation unfortunately was under the supervision and orders of Dr A.Q. Khan. No government official or military man was involved,” he said.
The trade in Pakistan’s nuclear secrets has emerged since Libya agreed to open up its weapons programmes to the IAEA last year following pressure from Washington and London.
American officials have been quoted as saying that Libya paid dealers representing Khan $50 million (£27.3 million) for blueprints of nuclear warheads.