ISLAMABAD — The Pakistani doctor who helped the Central Intelligence Agency find Osama bin Laden is likely to spend the rest of his life behind bars, irrespective of whether charges of manslaughter filed against him last week stick or not, security officials and analysts say.
The 51-year-old doctor, Shakil Afridi, has been imprisoned by Pakistani authorities since May 2011 for his role in a fictitious polio immunization program that the CIA hoped would collect definitive proof that bin Laden was hiding out with his family in a high-walled compound in the town of Abbotabad, 60 miles north of Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital.
The ruse failed to collect the evidence the CIA was hoping for, but Afridi was imprisoned anyway. Repeated U.S. entreaties that he be released – most recently in October, when Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited the White House – have been rejected.
That’s likely to continue, analysts here say, because the country’s powerful army has made it clear it views Afridi as a traitor for working for the CIA, even though bin Laden had ordered terrorist attacks that killed hundreds of Pakistani troops and civilians. The army was hugely embarrassed by the May 2011 U.S. Navy SEAL raid that killed bin Laden less than a mile from the country’s top military academy.
Afridi was charged Wednesday by authorities administering Pakistan’s northwest tribal areas bordering Afghanistan with being responsible for the 2006 death of an eight-year-old boy whom he had operated on for appendicitis, said his lawyer, Samiullah Afridi.
The manslaughter charges, filed seven years ago by the boy’s mother, allege Afridi, a physician, was not qualified or authorized to carry out the surgery at his clinic in the Khyber tribal area, the lawyer said.
The charges come as Afridi awaits a fresh hearing of charges that accuse him of "conspiring against the state" with Mangal Bagh Afridi, the Pakistan Taliban insurgent commander for the Khyber trial area. A lower court in the tribal areas had convicted Afridi in May 2012 and sentenced him to 33 years’ imprisonment on those charges.
The Khyber tribal area is home to the famous Khyber pass that connects Kabul and northern areas of landlocked Afghanistan to Pakistan’s ports on the Indian Ocean, and is the major overland supply route for supplies to U.S.-led NATO forces based in Afghanistan.
Afridi’s conviction was struck down in August 2012 by a higher tribal court, which ruled the convicting magistrate had exceeded his legal authority in passing the excessive sentence against Afridi, and ordered a retrial.
But a month later, the director general of the military’s Inter Services Intelligence directorate had told Pakistani analysts and journalists that Afridi would not be allowed to go free.
"The Americans should forget about Afridi," the ISI chief, Gen. Zaheerul Islam, said in remarks made on the sidelines of an army celebration of Pakistan’s annual defense day in Rawalpindi, a city of five million people adjacent to Islamabad that houses the army’s headquarters.
Nothing has changed since, a ranking ISI operative said Saturday, speaking to McClatchy on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to go on record.
"Afridi will spend the rest of his natural life in prison," he said.
The seven-year-old manslaughter charge had not been acted upon by Pakistani administrators in the tribal areas until last week. However, the retrial, as well as the fresh manslaughter charge, would also be heard by administrators in the tribal areas, who in practice take their orders from the army, which has deployed 150,000 troops there to fight the insurgent militants.
Pakistani analysts said the army’s uncompromising stance on Afridi reflected the red lines of its security cooperation with the United States.
"Simply, the Pakistani security establishment is saying it has zero tolerance for third-country covert intelligence operations on its soil," said Mohammed Imran, a security analyst based in Islamabad.
Such intolerance does not extend to U.S. drone strikes against Taliban targets in Pakistan’s tribal areas, although the government publicly condemns them, the analysts said.
"Let’s be clear: when a drone kills a Pakistan Taliban leader, it is because the security establishment has asked the Americans to do it," said Najam Sethi, an influential political analyst, in his popular television program aired Saturday on Geo News, the country’s leading cable channel.
Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent.