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Shakil Afridi, doctor who helped US find Osama bin Laden, faces long jail term in Pakistan

Pakistan jailed the doctor who helped the US find Osama bin Laden. Originally posted to Helium Network on May 25, 2012.

Pakistan sentenced a man to a lengthy jail term because he helped the United States locate Osama bin Laden's residence inside Pakistan. The US subsequently raided the compound and killed bin Laden. Pakistan has maintained that the US should have first asked for their cooperation.

The U.S. CIA had asked Dr. Shakil Afridi, a surgeon employed by the Pakistani government, to collect DNA from children living in a suspicious compound. The US wanted the DNA to determine if the inhabitants of the house were family members of Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda, the group responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. The US already had the DNA of bin Laden's sister.

The US had been aggressively searching for bin Laden ever since 2001. After the US invaded Afghanistan, he was suspected of having escaped over the southeastern border into Pakistan and was widely imagined to be hiding in a cave.

In the decade following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the US gave over $20 billion in aid to Pakistan. Pakistan provided military support to the US invasion of Afghanistan but limited the amount of activity that the US could conduct inside Pakistan. Diplomatic relations were always strained.

Eventually suspicion fell on a million-dollar compound near a Pakistani military academy in Abbottabad. Despite the apparent wealth of the owner, the compound reportedly had no Internet access and all trash was burned. It seemed a likely hideout for a criminal.

Update: It is now widely believed that Pakistani Brigadier Usman Khalid, a senior intelligence officer, leaked the whereabouts of bin Laden to the US. Seymour Hersh wrote for the London Review of Books in May 2015 that bin Laden was kept prisoner in the Abbottabad compound for years by Pakistan's intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Khalid revealed the location for millions of dollars of reward money, according to Pakistan's The News. Carlotta Gall said that the reporter for The News is credible, and on May 12, 2015 she approved of the overall theory in the New York Times: "On this count, my own reporting tracks with Hersh’s."

To attempt to obtain the DNA from the residents of the compound, Afridi ran a fake vaccination program. "Although Afridi apparently failed to collect blood," Ismail Khan wrote for the Brisbane Times, "he was able to secure a telephone number for Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, bin Laden's trusted courier, enabling the CIA to confirm his identity."

The U.S. subsequently sent in Navy SEAL Team 6 which killed Osama bin Laden in the compound on May 2, 2011. Bin Laden was shot in the head and chest and was quickly buried at sea, eliminating the possibility that his grave would become a shrine for terrorists that would require ongoing military attention. The Taliban - an organization closely allied with bin Laden's al Qaeda - quickly acknowledged that bin Laden had indeed been killed in the raid.  Ayman al-Zawahiri was announced a month later as the new leader of al Qaeda.

Pakistan reacted angrily to the raid by asking the US to limit its military presence in Pakistan and threatening to reduce their cooperation with the US.  They claimed that the US's failure to inform them of and include them in the raid implied a lack of trust.

One of bin Laden's three wives revealed that Bin Laden's family had been living there since 2005, prior to which they had lived elsewhere in Pakistan.  None of the three women are Pakistani; after the raid, they were detained by Pakistani officials and were charged with immigration violations in March 2012. Bin Laden was not Pakistani either. He did not have a citizenship; Saudi Arabia had revoked it in 1994 due to his terrorist activities.

The identity of Afridi, the doctor who worked with the US to identify the residents of the compound, was somehow made public. On May 23, 2012, a tribal court in Pakistan's Khyber district sentenced Afridi to 33 years in jail, to be slightly reduced if he pays a fine amounting to several times the annual income for an average Pakistani. Afridi was not present at his trial and had no legal representation. According to the BBC, trials at tribal courts do not always follow typical procedures.

Had he been charged under Pakistani penal law, however, he might have been subject to the death penalty. He is now being held in isolation at the central jail in Peshawar, a compound fenced off from the road with guard towers of sand-colored brick. Prison officials say they are concerned for his safety and his health.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have verbally defended Afridi. Panetta told 60 Minutes in January 2012 that Afridi "was not in any way treasonous towards Pakistan" and "was helping to go after terrorism." It is unclear whether the US "outed" Afridi to Pakistan and why he was not given asylum in the United States.

The day after Afridi's sentencing, the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee reacted by unanimously voting to cut aid to Pakistan by $33 million, symbolic of his 33-year sentence. This was in addition to significant cuts they had already recommended. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) called Pakistan a "schizophrenic ally" while Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) called the situation "Alice in Wonderland at best."

Update: In March 2014, Afridi's sentence was reduced to 23 years. In March 2015, Afridi's former lawyer was fatally shot near Peshawar, Pakistan; two militant groups claimed responsibility.

Pakistan has argued that the U.S. killing of bin Laden violated its sovereignty. On the request of parliament, Pakistan's Abbottabad Commission produced a report, hundreds of pages long, inquiring into the incident.

According to Pakistan's AAJ News, Afridi was convicted of "offences against the state, conspiracy or attempt to wage war against Pakistan, concealing with intent designs to wage war against the state and on charges of working against the country's sovereignty."

It is hard to see how the assassination of bin Laden harmed Pakistan's national interests, making the charge of treason questionable. Rather, the UK's Daily Mail reported that "the sentence is viewed by Western officials as punishment for humiliating the nation which claimed not to know it was harbouring the Al Qaeda leader."

Among Pakistan's troubles are the growing mobilization of its religious extremists against its more moderate, democratically elected officials. As just one example, when the governor of Punjab province, home to half of Pakistan's population, was assassinated by his own bodyguard on January 4, 2011, no clerics were willing to recite funeral prayers, fearing for their own safety. Other politicians, including former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, have also been assassinated in recent years by extremists. This violent climate has a constraining effect upon the words and actions of many otherwise liberal politicians.


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