Pak-US tensions rise over Dr Afridi's conviction
25 May, 2012
ISLAMABAD: Pakistan's problematic relationship with the United States sailed into fresh controversy on Thursday as US lawmakers warned of aid cuts after the jailing of a surgeon who helped the CIA hunt down Osama bin Laden.
Shakeeel Afridi was found guilty of treason, sentenced to 33 years in prison and fined Rs 320,000 under a tribal justice system that has governed Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal belt since British rule. His sentencing was announced two days after US President Barack Obama appeared to snub Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari at a NATO summit in Chicago over Islamabad's refusal to lift a six-month blockade on NATO transit rights into Afghanistan. Afridi was not entitled to a lawyer but was given a chance to defend himself and has a right to appeal the verdict, officials said.
Critics said he should not have been tried under tribal law for an alleged crime that took place outside the tribal belt, in Abbottabad where he ran a fake vaccination programme designed to collect bin Laden family DNA. The US government said Pakistan had no basis to hold Afridi, whom an official at Peshawar central jail said was in poor health and being kept away from other prisoners to avoid any danger to his life.
"Anyone who supported the United States in finding Osama bin Laden was not working against Pakistan, they were working against al Qaeda," Pentagon Press Secretary George Little told reporters.
Senators Carl Levin and John McCain, from the two major parties on the Senate Armed Services Committee, demanded Afridi be pardoned and freed "immediately", saying the decision could put US financial assistance at risk. "What Dr Afridi did is the furthest thing from treason. It was a courageous, heroic and patriotic act which helped to locate the most wanted terrorist in the world – a mass murderer who had the blood of many innocent Pakistanis on his hands," they said.
The United States has given Pakistan more than $18 billion in assistance since the September 11, 2001 attacks, but US officials have persistent concerns that some elements of the establishment have maintained support for extremists. Pakistan was tight lipped about the threatened cuts. "We respect their legislative process but obviously the case of Doctor Shakeel Afridi will be decided in accordance with Pakistani laws and by the Pakistan courts," Foreign Ministry spokesman Moazzam Ahmad Khan told AFP. Pakistani-US relations went into free fall last year, starting when a CIA contractor shot dead two Pakistanis, then over the American raid that killed bin Laden on May 2 and lastly over US air strikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November.
After the air strikes, Pakistan shut its Afghan border to NATO supplies and ordered US staff out of an air base reportedly used as a hub for drones. In March, parliament agreed to reset US relations but on condition that Washington apologise for the soldiers' deaths and end drone attacks on its soil. Islamabad, which is understood to have given its tacit approval for the attacks on al Qaeda and Taliban targets in the past, has become increasingly vocal about its opposition to the perceived violation of national sovereignty.
In Pakistan, analysts conceded Afridi's sentencing had increased tensions with the United States, but said he could be quickly forgotten if Pakistan agrees to reopen the NATO routes, the cheapest and quickest route into Afghanistan. "There are a lot of strains in Pakistan-US relations and at this time this sentence would obviously be met by a lot of criticism in the US, particularly in Congress," said political analyst Hasan Askari.
"I can't understand why they can't make their mind up. If they want to reopen it, fine, open it and if they don't want to open it, don't and face the consequences." There are many in Pakistan who believe the United States abandoned Afridi after bin Laden was killed, saying they should have taken him out of the country for his own safety, knowing that his activities would come to light. Eight months after the raid, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta confirmed that Afridi had worked for US intelligence and expressed concern about Pakistan's treatment of him.
White House admin blamed for identifying Dr Afridi to Pak
A New York congressman, who leads the House Homeland Security Committee, has blamed the White House administration for identifying Dr Shakeel Afridi to Pakistani authorities.
Peter King, in an interview with the Fox News, said that this has been handled very poorly by the US authorities right from the time of the raid. While accusing the Obama administration in the light of Dr Shakeel's sentence for treason by Pakistani authorities, King said, "They put him there. They disclosed his identity." 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.
Dr Shakeel Afridi helped the CIA by running a fake vaccination programme that allowed him to collect the DNA of bin Laden's children from the family compound in Abbottabad. Sample analysis confirmed the terror leader was probably there and triggered the deadly mission by US Navy SEAL last May. It sparked a major rift between the US and Pakistani leaders.
US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta confirmed in January that Dr Afridi collected DNA in an effort to help locate the al Qaeda leader, but added he "was not in any way treasonous towards Pakistan. For them to take this kind of action against somebody who was helping to go after terrorism is a real mistake".
US officials have already started rallying on the doctor's behalf, urging the Pakistani government to overturn the sentence which is said to include hard labour and extensive fines. "What Dr Afridi did is the furthest thing from treason. It was a courageous, heroic and patriotic act, which helped to locate the most wanted terrorist in the world," Senators John McCain and Carl Levin wrote in a joint statement.
It is not clear if Dr Afridi knew who the target of the investigation was when the CIA recruited him, or what DNA he actually collected in the fake hepatitis B vaccination programme. Dr Afridi was accused of having taken half a dozen cooler boxes without authorisation.
Earlier, the Conservative legal group Judicial Watch revealed that the Obama administration arranged for Hollywood filmmakers to have special access to government officials involved in the commando operation that killed Osama bin Laden.