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Urs Tinner, Suspect In World's Biggest Nuclear Smuggling Ring, Is Freed From Prison

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GENEVA — A Swiss man suspected of involvement in the world's biggest nuclear smuggling ring has been released from prison after more than four years of investigative detention, his family said Sunday.

Urs Tinner, 43, was freed several days ago, his mother Hedwig Tinner told The Associated Press by telephone from eastern Switzerland.

His brother Marco Tinner, 40, remains in detention while prosecutors appeal his release to the federal criminal court in Bellinzona, she said, refusing to comment further on the case.

The family's information was confirmed by an official in a position to know about the case who spoke on condition of anonymity because of confidentiality rules.

The Swiss Supreme Court had rejected previous requests for their release but told investigators in August to consider _ "within months" _ whether to set Urs and Marco Tinner free pending a possible trial.

The Tinner brothers, along with their father Friedrich, are suspected of supplying the clandestine network of Abdul Qadeer Khan _ creator of Pakistan's atomic bomb _ with technical know-how and equipment that was used to make gas centrifuges. Khan sold the centrifuges to countries with secret nuclear weapons programs, including Libya and Iran, before his operation was disrupted in 2003.

Swiss investigators have struggled to piece together a complete picture of the Tinners' alleged activities within the Khan network since their arrest four years ago. The task has been complicated by the fact that the Swiss government ordered thousands of files in the case destroyed last year citing national security concerns.

Last month, Urs Tinner's lawyer lodged a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights arguing that the length of pretrial detention and the destruction of the files breached his client's rights. The case has yet to be heard by the Strasbourg court.

If the Tinners are formally charged and their case goes to trial in Switzerland, they face up to 10 years imprisonment if found guilty of breaking laws on the export of sensitive goods. Time in pretrial detention would count toward any possible prison sentence.

In October, a German engineer was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison for his role in the Khan network. Gotthard Lerch, 65, was found guilty by a German court of breaking export and weapons laws by sending uranium-enriching equipment to Libya between 1999 and 2003 despite knowing the North African nation was trying to build nuclear weapons.

A public trial for the Tinners could prove uncomfortable to the Swiss government. According to court documents published in August, federal prosecutors believe the Tinner brothers were CIA informants and that U.S. pressure prompted the Swiss government to destroy some of the evidence in the case.

Swiss media have reported that information supplied by the Tinners was crucial in helping Western intelligence seize a centrifuge shipment bound for Libya in 2003. The bust prompted Tripoli to admit and renounce its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.

When asked for comment in October, a CIA spokesman, George Little, refused to discuss the Tinner case or allegations surrounding the destruction of files. But Little acknowledged at the time that "the disruption of the A.Q. Khan network was a genuine intelligence success, one in which the CIA played a key role."

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Associated Press Writer Balz Bruppacher in Bern, Switzerland, contributed to this report.