By Saeed Shah, McClatchy Newspapers –
ISLAMABAD — The Pakistani doctor who helped the CIA in the hunt for Osama bin Laden was sentenced to 33 years in prison for treason Wednesday, officials said, in a further blow to relations between Islamabad and Washington.
The United States had been negotiating behind the scenes to win freedom for Dr. Shakil Afridi, who was detained by Pakistani intelligence agents after the May 2, 2011, U.S. special forces raid that found and killed the al-Qaida founder in the northern town of Abbottabad.
Word that Afridi had been tried in a tribal court, rather than in a regular Pakistani one, came just after Pakistan and the United States failed to come to an agreement at the NATO summit held in Chicago on reopening a land route through Pakistan for supplies to coalition troops in landlocked Afghanistan.
The Afridi case illustrates the stark differences between the two countries on anti-terrorism issues. Afridi is regarded as a hero by American officials but as a traitor in Pakistan.
McClatchy Newspapers revealed in July last year that Afridi had set up a fake health program in Abbottabad, sending health workers door to door to vaccinate residents for Hepatitis B, in an effort to get DNA samples from the house where the CIA suspected that bin Laden lived.
American officials were never sure that bin Laden was present in the home, to which they had traced a key al-Qaida courier. The work by Afridi was carried out in the weeks leading up to the raid and was an important part of the CIA’s attempts to verify that bin Laden was in the Abbottabad house before mounting a risky operation in another country’s territory to kill him. It remains unclear whether Afridi’s efforts gained any useful information.
After the bin Laden raid, Afridi remained in Pakistan, where he was arrested three weeks later by agents of the military’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency. U.S. officials believe he has been tortured in custody, a claim angrily denied by Pakistani military officials.
Afridi’s case was heard under colonial-era tribal laws that give the local administration in Pakistan’s tribal area sweeping powers to jail people, even though his alleged offense was committed in Abbottabad, where tribal laws do not apply. However, Afridi officially was employed to work in the tribal area, in the part known as Khyber agency. He is also a member of one of the tribes of the area.
News reports in Pakistan said Afridi was sent Wednesday to the central jail in Peshawar, the main city in the northwest of the country. The local nurses and other health officials in Abbottabad who cooperated unwittingly with Afridi have been fired.
In January, U.S. Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta, had gone public with Washington’s concerns about Afridi.
“I am very concerned about what the Pakistanis did with this individual. This was an individual who, in fact, helped provide intelligence that was very helpful with regard to this operation,” Panetta said during an interview aired by CBS’s “60 Minutes.” “He was not in any way treasonous towards Pakistan. He was not in any way doing anything that would have undermined Pakistan.”
However, Pakistan regarded the bin Laden raid as a national humiliation, and the cooperation of one of its citizens angered many here. Panetta’s remarks had confirmed on the record that Afridi had worked for the CIA. Under the laws in Pakistan, and many other countries, including the United States, working for a foreign intelligence agency is a crime.
U.S-Pakistan relations disintegrated last year over a series of clashes, including the bin Laden raid, culminating in a “friendly fire” episode in November in which American aircraft attacked two Pakistani border outposts, killing 24 soldiers. In response, Pakistan stopped NATO supplies to Afghanistan passing through its territory.