Pakistani doctor who led CIA to bin Laden stuck in prison

Pakistani lawyer Qamar Nadeem Afridi, representing doctor Shakil Afridi who assisted the CIA in their hunt for Osama bin Laden, leaves the FATA tribunal
Pakistani lawyer Qamar Nadeem Afridi, representing doctor Shakil Afridi who assisted the CIA in their hunt for Osama bin Laden, leaves the FATA tribunal
By Ishtiaq Ahmed
More than four years after a Navy SEALs Team Six killed Osama bin Laden during an early morning raid on his Abbottabad compound, a doctor accused of leading the CIA to the al-Qaida founder and 9/11 mastermind remains in prison.

Dr. Shakil Afridi, 53, is believed to have used the cover of a fake vaccination campaign to get DNA samples from bin Laden’s family during a stop at the compound.

Locating bin Laden was undoubtedly a landmark achievement for the CIA, but the aftermath became a nightmare for the physician and the Pakistani government.

Days after Navy SEALs killed bin Laden on May 2, 2011, Afridi was arrested while trying to flee the country. He was initially charged with treason for helping the CIA.

The Obama administration is believed to have helped persuade the Pakistanis to drop the treason charge. But Afridi instead was tried on charges of having links with Lashkar-e-Islam, a terrorist group.

In May 2012, he was sentenced to 33 years in prison and fined about $3,047, based on current dollars-to-rupees exchange rates. On appeal, an assistant political agent’s court reduced the sentence to 23 years and a $2,095 fine..

Afridi was convicted of the revised charges, even though Lashkar-e-Islam rejected any association with him.

“We have no link to such a shameless man. If we see him, we’ll chew him alive,” an unidentified commander told Agence France-Presse.

Today Afridi, who was the doctor in charge of the Khyber Agency of Federally Administered Tribal Areas before the raid, languishes in Peshawar Central Jail.

“(The United States) wanted his help and he answered, risking his life to bring bin Laden to justice. And we abandoned him. … It’s an outrage,” Robert Gauss, a Colorado-based criminal defense lawyer, wrote on a Facebook page titled “Free Dr. Shakil Afridi from Pakistani Prosecution.”

Afridi’s wife quit her job as a government college principal in a Pakistani tribal area because she feared that she, her two sons and daughter no longer could safely live there. They never appeared publicly and reportedly are in hiding in Punjab province.

“Even I never met them since then,” Afridi’s lawyer, Qamar Nadeem Afridi, told the Tribune-Review.

The family needs help, he said. A court order seized the doctor’s assets, including their residence, and froze bank accounts.

Afridi’s friends bear most of his family’s expenses, he said, though some suspect extended family members may be secretly supporting them.

In March, attorney Samiullah Afridi, the doctor’s cousin, was assassinated by Jamatul Ahrar, a Taliban-connected group, despite having given up the case in response to its threats.

Qamar Afridi, the doctor’s current attorney, said he has been safe from such threats, perhaps because a review petition seeking acquittal of Afridi has been pending for the past year-and-a-half with the Khyber Agency tribunal.

The case was being heard under Frontier Crimes Regulations, a set of laws dating to the British colonial era that governs the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The lawyer said no tribal area is satisfied with the law, but Pakistan’s constitution bars shifting the case to another court.

U.S. defends position

State Department spokesman Noel Clay told the Trib that the U.S. position on Afridi is unchanged: “We believe his treatment is both unjust and unwarranted. We regret that he was convicted and the severity of his sentence.

“We have clearly communicated our position to Pakistan, both in public and in private, and we continue to raise this issue at the highest levels during discussions with Pakistan’s leadership.”

Then-CIA Director Leon Panetta and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanded that Pakistan release Afridi, but the government has balked, fearing public and Taliban backlash.

In a 2012 letter, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R.-Calif., urged Obama to withhold unallocated foreign aid for Pakistan until the doctor is released. Rohrabacher introduced a House bill trying to recognize Afridi with the Congressional Gold Medal and get him declared a naturalized U.S. citizen.

The Senate threatened to withhold $1 million in aid to Pakistan for every year of Afridi’s sentence.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif rejected the threat, saying the country would not compromise on matters involving its national security and sovereignty.

In February, Secretary of State John Kerry said he would not withhold foreign aid to Pakistan as a weapon in the doctor dispute, citing Pakistan’s anti-terror efforts and its humanitarian needs.

Medical aid impact

The CIA’s use of Afridi to get to bin Laden greatly affected charity medical services in Pakistan, particularly polio vaccinations in a country that is one of three polio-endemic nations. The raid on bin Laden’s compound raised the doubts of tribal people influenced by propaganda that polio vaccinations are part of the West’s depopulation agenda for Pakistan.

The Taliban started targeting polio and other medical aid workers. Ayesha Raza Farooq, the Pakistan prime minister’s focal person on polio eradication, said that between July 2012 and February, 80 polio workers or those protecting them were killed, and 54 were seriously wounded.

Using a charity organization for espionage drew worldwide criticism of the United States from nonprofit humanitarian organizations.

“The CIA’s use of the cover of humanitarian activity for this purpose casts doubt on the intentions and integrity of all humanitarian actors in Pakistan, thereby undermining the international humanitarian community’s efforts,” the InterAction coalition wrote to the CIA.

Last year, a White House adviser informed U.S. public health school deans that the CIA no longer can use vaccination programs as an intelligence cover, the Intercept, an online publication, reported.

In June, Pakistan ordered Save the Children to wind up its operations. Though the decision to bounce the group was reversed after U.S. intervention, Pakistan has announced a tough policy for verification and registration of international nongovernmental organizations operating in the country.

Imran Khan, a cricket player-turned-politician and chairman of Pakistan’s Tehrik-e-Insaf, which rules in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where Afridi is in custody, asked what the United States would do if the roles were reversed.

“Will a Pakistani spy be set free if he is caught in the United States? I don’t think so,” Khan told reporters. “Same goes for Afridi.”

Ishtiaq Ahmed, an Islamabad-based reporter, was one of two Pakistani journalists the Tribune-Review hosted for a month last year in a professional partnership program through the International Center for Journalists.

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