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Shakil Afridi, Pakistani Doctor Who Helped Catch Osama Bin Laden, Faces Prison As Payback

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Shakil Afridi was sentenced to 33 years in prison in what is widely seen as retaliation for helping find Osama bin Laden.
Shakil Afridi was sentenced to 33 years in prison in what is widely seen as retaliation for helping find Osama bin Laden.

WASHINGTON -- U.S. officials have called him a hero. Leaders of his own country labeled him a traitor. And some who accuse him of medical malpractice say he is little more than a quack.

But more than a year after Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden and weeks after the Pakistani doctor was sentenced to 33 years in prison in what is widely viewed as retaliation for helping track the al Qaeda leader to his hideout, Shakil Afridi is indisputably all alone.

Held in solitary confinement in Peshawar's central jail for his own safety, Afridi is surrounded by hundreds of imprisoned militants who would like nothing more than to slash the throat of the man who helped the CIA find bin Laden. Besides the "lunatics in the jail" who supported bin Laden, he is in danger from "security folks who want to kill him for being a spy," said Christine Fair, an expert on Pakistan at Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies.

There has been talk of transferring Afridi to a more remote location where he would be in less danger. But Afridi, 48, would still be a marked man.

The Taliban have vowed to "cut him into pieces when and where we manage to reach him." For now at least, that may be an idle threat. The doctor hasn't been seen in public since Pakistani intelligence picked him up three weeks after the May 2011 raid that killed the world's most wanted man.

U.S. officials have condemned Pakistan's treatment of Afridi; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it "unjust and unwarranted.” Diplomatic efforts are assumed to be under way to free him, but they may be complicated by U.S.-Pakistani relations that have steadily deteriorated over the past year amid continued drone strikes and the closing of a key military supply route into Afghanistan after a NATO border raid left 26 Pakistani soldiers dead last November.

Afridi, a government doctor with a reportedly shady past, was recruited by the CIA to do reconnaissance of bin Laden's heavily guarded compound in the sleepy garrison town of Abbottabad. Under the ruse of a fake hepatitis B vaccination campaign in the spring of 2011, Afridi called on the compound to try to collect DNA samples from family members. Although he never secured those samples, the information he provided helped to convince U.S. officials they had indeed located their long-sought quarry.

The May 2, 2011, raid took Pakistani officials by surprise and proved deeply embarrassing as questions were raised about whether they knew bin Laden was there. Three weeks later, Afridi was picked up by Pakistani intelligence.

As details about his involvement trickled out, media reports said he would be tried for treason in a Pakistani federal court for cooperating with a foreign government to violate Pakistani sovereignty and launch a military raid within Pakistan's borders.

Instead, Afridi's case was moved to a tribal court in the largely lawless Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The court, or jirga, operates under a separate Frontier Crimes Regulation, a vestige of British colonialism apart from Pakistan's main judiciary system.

Only last month did the world learn that Afridi wasn't charged with treason but with aiding the anti-government militant group Lashkar-i-Islam and its leader Mangal Bagh. The five-page court document made no mention of bin Laden.

The allegation struck some as misplaced since Lashkar-i-Islam is said to have kidnapped the doctor in 2008 after complaints that he performed unnecessary surgeries on illiterate and unsuspecting patients to pad his billing. He was only released when relatives paid a ransom.

Despite the questionable charges, the tribal court convicted Afridi and sentenced him to 33 years in prison. He is appealing the decision, which is widely viewed as payback for helping a country that, according to a newly released poll by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, is seen as an enemy by most Pakistanis.

"As a Pakistani Citizen he should have kept the Pakistani government in the loop. Otherwise, he was just working for foreign intell, which is counter to the national security paradigm of this country," said Aqab Malik, who teaches strategic and nuclear studies at Pakistan's National Defense University in Islamabad, in an email to The Huffington Post. He said Afridi's sentence was meant "to show an example to others."

While Afridi has garnered little sympathy from his countrymen, U.S. officials have rallied to his cause. On Capitol Hill, Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) have called for an immediate pardon and release. A Senate panel voted to cut $1 million in aid to Pakistan for every year of Afridi's sentence. There have also been bills demanding that he be allowed to leave Pakistan and granting him U.S. citizenship.

The show of support is notable given that Afridi is no one's idea of an angel.

"You don’t recruit someone to work for the CIA unless [that person is] ethically or morally flexible," said Fair, the Georgetown professor who calls Afridi typical of informants, who often have "dodgy histories and financial issues." She doubts that "a physician with impeccable scruples" would have taken part in a phony immunization campaign that aid workers say may have raised the risk of polio among Pakistani children.

Fair said it's not clear that Afridi would voluntarily choose to leave Pakistan, given reports that he turned down an offer from U.S. officials to relocate him and his family after the bin Laden raid.

For now, U.S. diplomats are keeping mum on what, if anything, they are doing to free Afridi. A spokesman in the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad referred questions to the State Department in Washington. A spokeswoman there told HuffPost in an email, "We don’t have anything to add beyond what we’ve already said on the record."

A spokesman for the Pakistani Embassy in Washington said via email, "Dr. Afridi was charged and convicted by Political Administration in Khyber Agency for supporting and working with Lashkar-e-Islam, a terrorist organization responsible for killing innocent civilians and law enforcement personnel. An appeals process exists and Dr. Afridi’s lawyers are reportedly appealing against the conviction. Pakistan has an independent judiciary which functions pursuant to the Constitution and in accordance with the laws of Pakistan. Government was, therefore, not in a position to interfere in the judicial process. Dr. Afridi’s actions have seriously jeopardized Pakistan’s efforts to fight disease and polio, particularly among children. Dr. Afridi’s case needs to be handled in a prudent fashion."

Fair said the silence from the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan "probably means they’re doing something" but are keeping quiet to prevent a backlash in Pakistan.

Dennis Kux, a senior policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, agrees that U.S. officials are likely pressing the Pakistanis behind closed doors. "Normally, in a case involving a CIA operative, the [U.S. government] does all it can to protect the individual," he said in an email. "But given the tense relations with Pakistan and the fact Afridi is considered a traitor by [Pakistani] public opinion, it would be surprising if the current weak [government] agrees to release him."

Kux added that the Pakistani government may decide to retry Afridi in a civilian court since "using a tribal court was unusual, to put it mildly."

Other analysts also pointed to the peculiar jurisdiction and charges in Afridi's case.

Fair suggested those choices were made to "create room for negotiations to get him out. There is no way they could let him go without a sentence. Domestic politics wouldn’t allow that." Had he been tried for treason under Pakistan's constitution, she added, he would have faced the death penalty.

Fair noted there is precedence for finding wiggle room in the Pakistani justice system. Raymond Davis, a CIA security officer who was jailed for killing two Pakistanis in Lahore, was released last year after intense negotiations that led to the payment of so-called "blood money" in exchange for his freedom.

But Joshua White, a researcher who focuses on South Asia, said that in Afridi's case, U.S. officials are likely under little pressure to negotiate the release of the foreign national. "My guess is that they harbor little hope of getting him out of Pakistan at this point," he said in an email. "Pakistan would likely demand a lot, and [the U.S. government] would be likely to give up only a little" to free him.

For Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), one of Afridi's most vocal defenders and an outspoken critic of Pakistan, the time for "quiet diplomacy" is over. "Experience shows that what condemns a political prisoner is neglect," said the congressman's spokeswoman, Tara Olivia Setmayer. "If he disappears from public view, he is doomed. He must become a cause célèbre to have any chance of survival."

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