The plight of Shakil Afridi has become the latest irritant in the fraught relationship between Washington and Islamabad, with U.S. lawmakers already having withheld some U.S. aid to Pakistan and some now pushing for a total cutoff.
Last week it was widely reported that Afridi was sentenced on May 23 by a district court in the Khyber tribal area near the Pakistan-Afghan border to 33 years in prison after being convicted of “anti-state activities,” unambiguously linked in the reports to his involvement with the CIA.
Only after an escalating dispute with the U.S. did Pakistani officials on Wednesday release court documents purporting to show that Afridi’s conviction was instead for providing assistance to a banned militant group, Lashkar-e-Islam. Reports also emerged pointing to a checkered past, with allegations of corruption and sexual harassment of staff.
Lashkar-e-Islam itself has denied having any links to Afridi, with a spokesman telling media the group would kill him if it had the opportunity.
The purported Khyber court document did refer, without elaboration, to evidence that Afridi had been involved with foreign intelligence agencies but said it the court did not have jurisdiction, and so had been unable to consider charges relating to that evidence. The judge recommended that the accused may be produced before an appropriate court for further proceedings.
Pakistan’s judicial system is not highly regarded, least of all among critics in Pakistan. A U.N. “special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers,” Gabriela Knaul, this week ended a 11-day visit to the country, and spoke of the need to address urgently “challenges to the independence of judges, prosecutors, court officials and lawyers” in Pakistan.
“An independent judicial system should be free from political or any other pressure,” she told a press briefing in Islamabad on Tuesday.
Whatever the reliability of the Khyber court’s supposed verdict, the facts remain that Afridi was:
--Arrested several weeks after the U.S. Navy SEALS’ May 2, 2011 raid on bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound that ended with the fugitive terrorist’s death. (Pakistani media report say he was arrested at a market in Peshawar, on May 23.)
--Held for months without charge by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.
--Identified by U.S. officials cited in media reports – the first in Britain’s The Guardian on July 12 – as the doctor who helped those hunting bin Laden by carrying out a vaccination campaign in Abbottabad aimed at getting DNA evidence from the compound that would substantiate suspicions that bin Laden was there.
--Accused last October by a government-appointed commission investigating the Abbottabad raid of being a “national criminal.” The commission, headed by a former Supreme Court judge, recommended that he be put on trial for “conspiracy against the State of Pakistan and high treason,” charges that carry the death penalty.
Whether or not the Khyber court jailed him for unrelated offenses – real or trumped-up – Afridi remains in a precarious position. He is at serious risk of harm in Peshawar Central Prison from militant inmates seeking revenge for bin Laden’s demise. (Officials in Peshawar were reported Friday to be considering having him moved for his safety.)
Even if he is kept safe from harm, he faces the possibility of additional charges being brought against him by a higher court that could include the capital offenses raised by the Abbottabad Commission.
The U.S. government has called repeatedly for Afridi to be released
Last week the Senate Appropriations Committee, marking up a foreign operations bill, voted unanimously to cut U.S. aid to Pakistan by a symbolic amount of $33 million – one million dollars for each year of Afridi’s sentence.
The bill includes a total of $1 billion for Pakistan, however, and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on Tuesday announced plans to introduce a bill next week that “will strip Pakistan of all foreign aid until Dr. Afridi's recent 33-year prison sentence is overturned and he is allowed to leave Pakistan.” A second bill would grant Afridi U.S. citizenship, Paul said.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday that Afridi’s sentencing was “difficult to understand.”
“This doctor was not working against Pakistan. He was working against al-Qaeda,” he said. “And I hope that ultimately Pakistan understands that, because what they have done here, I think, you know, does not help in the effort to try to re-establish a relationship between the United States and Pakistan.”