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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

An update now on the strange saga of Dr. A.Q. Khan. Khan is the Pakistani scientist who passed nuclear secrets to North Korea, Libya and Iran. It's been well over two years now since Khan was forced to confess and to offer this televised apology.

Dr. A.Q. KHAN (Nuclear Scientist, Pakistan): My dear brothers and sisters, I have chosen to appear before you to offer my deepest regrets and unqualified apologies to a traumatized nation. I take full responsibility for my actions and seek your pardon.

NORRIS: A.Q. Khan now passes his days under house arrest at his mansion in Islamabad. He's in his 70s, his health is poor, and as NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports, there's little appetite in Pakistan for further legal action against him or for more interrogations.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Even before A.Q. Khan's confession, people who worked with him were already being rounded up. Dr. Mohammed Shafiq Ariman(ph) remembers the night of his father's arrest.

Dr. MOHAMMED SHAFIQ ARIMAN: At about 11:30 in the night, my mother came running down and she was, I mean, she was stunned and upset and hysterical. They've taken away your dad. They're taking away your dad. Do something about it. I was wondering who was taking him away.

KELLY: Who turned out to be ISI, Pakistan's spy service, and Ariman's dad turns out to be Brigadier Sandoval Khan, the man in charge of construction and engineering at A.Q. Khan's nuclear labs. Brigadier Khan, no relation to A.Q., has never been charged, but he was detained more than six months. Same story with a dozen other former aides to A.Q. Khan who were arrested but ultimately released without charge.

Dr. Ariman has emerged as an unofficial spokesman for the group. He says their travel is now restricted, and they're all forbidden to speak to the press by explicit order of Pakistani government officials.

Dr. ARIMAN: Because they want to hide this. They want to put all this thing under the rug. They don't want people to talk about it.

KELLY: But people are talking about A.Q. Khan and his global nuclear trade. Last month's nuclear test by North Korea placed Pakistan's history of proliferation back in the spotlight. So has the ongoing standoff between the West and Iran over that country's nuclear ambitions. In both cases, there are outstanding questions about what weapon designs and technology Khan may have supplied, questions that are key to understanding how close Iran may be to building a nuclear bomb and what nuclear blueprints or technology may still be circulating that could fall into the hands of terrorists.

Yet a senior Pakistani military official says it's been nine months since the U.S. submitted any new questions for Dr. Khan, and in Pakistan itself, officials do seem eager to forget the entire episode. It's presumed one reason is that Khan knows information that could embarrass political and military authorities. A second reason is that while A.Q. Khan is seen in most of the world as a nuclear villain, in Pakistan he's revered as a hero.

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KELLY: Walk down the Murray Road, a teaming boulevard of shops and hotels in Rawalpindi, one of Pakistan's biggest cities, and most people you meet say it's Khan's earlier achievement that should be remembered, that is, making Pakistan a nuclear power. Amir Ekbal Malik(ph) runs a camera story on the Murray Road.

Mr. AMIR EKBAL MALIK: (Through Translator) The gift given by him to this nation in the form of the atomic bomb, that's a marvelous thing he had done for the country and he remains a hero.

KELLY: A few doors down, Henna Hahn(ph), a clinical psychologist out shopping for furniture agrees.

Ms. HENNA HAHN: What I know as a Pakistani, as a Pakistani woman is that he has given honor, grace and security to Pakistan. This is very important for me.

KELLY: This sentiment runs strong across Pakistan and has made it practically impossible to prosecute Khan or other members of his network. That's according to Javad Asraf Kazi(ph), a former chief of ISI who's now Pakistan's education minister.

Mr. JAVAD ASRAF KAZI (Education Minister, Pakistan): Could anyone prosecute A.Q. Khan after what he did for the country to start with? To prosecute him, you will have the anger of the entire nation against you.

KELLY: It would be suicide for this government to try to prosecute him?

Mr. KAZI: Absolutely, it would be.

KELLY: So Pakistan's leaders have adopted a different strategy, to declare that the case is closed on A.Q. Khan and that the rest of the world should forgive and forget.

Mushaheed Hussein(ph) chairs the Foreign Relations Committee in Pakistan's Senate. He's also known as President Pervez Musharraf's right-hand man and he confesses to having a soft spot for A.Q. Kahn, his neighbor.

Mr. MUSHAHEED HUSSEIN (Pakistan Senate Foreign Relations Committee): So I used to bump into him when I went for my early morning walk with my wife. He used to feed the monkeys early morning, about 6:00 a.m.

KELLY: Mushaheed Hussein argues that Pakistan has been unfairly stigmatized for A.Q. Khan's activities. He says the West has been quick to pass judgment but not to acknowledge its own role in spreading nuclear technology.

Mr. HUSSAIN: Because if you are just going for the buyers, what about the sellers? They are from Germany, they are from France, they are from Holland, they are from Spain, they are from Japan, they are from the United States, they are from the United Kingdom. So we hear only one side of the story, and I think that's very convenient.

KELLY: These days, A.Q. Khan no longer leaves his home to feed the monkeys or go anywhere else. Khan suffers from depression and high blood pressure. In August, he had surgery for prostate cancer. Meanwhile, ISI guards stationed outside prevent visitors, and Khan's phone calls are restricted. I think his current situation is enough punishment for an old man, says Javed Ashraf Qazi, the government minister. He adds, in Pakistan, we're ready to move on.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News.

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