ISLAMABAD — In a twist to a case that’s angered Washington, the Pakistani doctor who helped the CIA hunt Osama bin Laden was convicted and jailed last week for supposed involvement with an Islamic militant group, not his work for American intelligence, court documents revealed Wednesday.
Shakil Afridi’s 33-year prison sentence – which drew condemnation from the Obama administration and leading members of Congress – had been widely assumed to be a result of a treason conviction for working for a foreign intelligence agency, a crime in Pakistan. Instead, the judgment at a secret trial in Pakistan’s tribal area on seemingly spurious charges of supporting a militant group was likely to rankle Washington further, even as lawyers said the shaky basis for the conviction would make it easier for it to be overturned.
Separately, officials with the provincial government holding Afridi said that they fear for his life. Afridi is being held at the main jail in Peshawar, the capital of the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where Pakistani Taliban – an al Qaida affiliate – and other extremist prisoners also are incarcerated. The provincial government has sent an urgent request to the federal government in Islamabad to move Afridi out of Peshawar, where they say other prisoners could attack him.
“It is imperative that the high-profile prisoner . . .may be shifted immediately to some federal facility or to a prison in another province where there is less concentration of militants and terrorists,” the letter said, according to media reports that were confirmed by officials to McClatchy.
The case has piled further tension on the already damaged relationship between Pakistan and the United States, which regards Afridi as a hero for working with the CIA to locate bin Laden. In Pakistan, where America and the CIA are dirty words, Afridi is generally regarded as a traitor – despite the fact that bin Laden’s al Qaida had declared war on Pakistan.
Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani this week described Afridi’s work for the CIA as “deplorable.”
A Western official said that the United States had expressed concern to Pakistan over Afridi’s safety and that the Pakistani government and military appear uncertain about whether they will comply with the requests to move him.
“I don’t know if they’ve decided what they will do at the end of the day,” said the official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
McClatchy first reported in July that before the secret U.S. raid in May 2011 on bin Laden’s compound in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad, the CIA tried to confirm his whereabouts by enlisting Afridi to set up a fake vaccination program in the town to try and gain a DNA sample from someone in the house.
Afridi was tried not by a court but by the administration of the tribal area under draconian, colonial-era statutes and without a lawyer present. Unlike a court verdict, tribal laws allow for prisoners to be freed at the will of authorities. Under recent reforms to the tribal laws, Afridi can also appeal to a tribunal.
It’s widely assumed that the United States and Pakistan will reach a deal to free Afridi once relations between the two countries begin to recover. Washington is willing to resettle him and his family in the United States.
The written verdict against Afridi, leaked Wednesday, shows that he was tried and convicted for his alleged association with Lashkar-e-Islam, a banned group that operates in Afridi’s home area of Khyber, which is the wealthiest part of the tribal area. Separate from the Pakistani Taliban, Lashkar-e-Islam is an armed group that experts say uses the veil of religion to disguise an extortion and looting racket that has continued for several years in Khyber, through which supplies for the U.S.-led NATO coalition in Afghanistan long passed.
In an interview with McClatchy in 2008, Mangal Bagh, the leader of the group, speaking in his then-hideout in Khyber, said that his mission was to “finish all social evils.” In reality, the authorities then seemed to tolerate Mangal Bagh because he kept the Pakistani Taliban off his lucrative turf.
The five-page verdict from the Khyber administration, dated May 23, stated that attacks against Pakistani security forces by Lashkar-e-Islam militants “were planned in the office of the accused.” It also said that he provided medical assistance to various militant commanders and that he gave a cash donation worth about $22,000.
Allies of Afridi disputed that characterization of the relationship.
“Shakil Afridi is innocent of this charge, too,” said Idrees Kamal, head of the anti-extremist advocacy group Amn Tehrik, which has arranged legal aid for Afridi.
While Afridi was secretly spying for the CIA in Abbottabad, about 150 miles east of Khyber, he was employed by the tribal area’s authority to oversee health services for Khyber. Bagh’s hold over Khyber was such that any official stationed there would have to come to a working relationship with his group.
Kamal said that Afridi had paid money to Lashkar-e-Islam, but that was because they had kidnapped him at one point and he had to buy his way out.
“If you’re living in Khyber,” Kamal said, “everyone has to be involved in some give-and-take with Lashkar-e-Islam.”
Jonathan S. Landay contributed from Washington.
Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.