(Adds State Department comment)
(CNSNews.com) – As the United States marks the 16th anniversary of al-Qaeda’s devastating attack, the Pakistani doctor who helped in the effort to track down Osama bin Laden six years ago remains imprisoned, despite efforts by U.S. lawmakers to condition U.S. aid on his freedom.
On Thursday. the Senate Appropriations Committee passed a FY 2018 spending bill which, once again, withholds $33 million in economic and security assistance to Pakistan until the secretary of state certifies “that Dr. Shakil Afridi has been released from prison and cleared of all charges relating to the assistance provided to the United States in locating Osama bin Laden.”
The withheld amount deliberately points to the 33-year prison term to which Afridi was sentenced in May 2012. Although he was convicted on charges unrelated to the hunt for the fugitive terrorist, his supporters in the U.S. Congress and elsewhere have no doubt the jail term is payback for his role in the bin Laden affair.
Pakistan was acutely embarrassed by the discovery that the world’s most-wanted terrorist had been able to live, undetected, for years in a house less than half a mile from a top Pakistani military academy, and 70 miles from the capital.
Afridi was arrested several weeks after U.S. Navy SEALS raided the compound in Abbottabad on May 2, 2011 and killed the man held responsible for the deaths of almost 3,000 people killed when hijacked planes were flown into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon, and a field in rural Pennsylvania.
U.S. officials later confirmed that Afridi had helped to identify the occupants of the Abbottabad compound by obtaining DNA evidence under the cover of a public vaccination campaign.
Leon Panetta, who was CIA director at the time of the raid, told CBS “60 Minutes” in 2012 that Afridi had “helped provide intelligence that was very helpful with regards to this operation.”
After being incarcerated for a year, accused originally of treason, Afridi was convicted in a Peshawar tribal tribunal in May 2012 of links to an obscure extremist group.
But his supporters view those charges as trumped up – as did an official Pakistan commission of inquiry, which recommended in 2013 that he be retried, this time for his role in the bin Laden raid.
(Reinforcing that impression, Pakistani Law Minister Zahid Hamid told lawmakers in Islamabad last January that Afridi would not be freed since he had collaborated with a foreign intelligence agency in helping to track bin Laden through a fake polio vaccination campaign.)
Afridi’s plight has long concerned U.S. lawmakers, and his name has come up in many pieces of appropriation and other legislation over recent years, including the Consolidated Appropriations Act signed into law last May to fund the federal government through the end of September.
The FY 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, which passed the House in July, included a sense of Congress clause calling Afridi “a hero to whom the people of the United States, Pakistan and the world owe a debt of gratitude for his help in finally locating Osama bin Laden before more innocent American, Pakistani and other lives were lost to this terrorist leader.”
Afridi’s imprisonment has also been cited in bills seeking Pakistan’s designation as a state-sponsor of terrorism.
Shakil Afridi came up during last year’s U.S. presidential campaign, when then Republican nominee Donald Trump said that as president he would get Pakistan to release the jailed doctor “in two minutes,” and observed that the U.S. gives “a lot of money to Pakistan.”
Pakistan’s then-interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, retorted that Pakistan was “not a colony” of the U.S., and dismissed U.S. aid to his country as “peanuts.”
Since 2001 U.S. taxpayers have contributed more than $33 billion to Pakistan, either in direct aid or as reimbursements for counterterrorism efforts.
Afridi’s imprisonment is one of a host of irritants in Washington’s uneasy relationship with the ostensible ally. In his recently-announced South Asia strategy, President Trump put Pakistan on notice over its troubling behavior, in particular its sheltering of terrorists.
The State Department’s public position on Afridi has remained essentially the same for several years, and was repeated Monday by a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad.
“We believe Dr. Afridi has been unjustly imprisoned and have clearly communicated our position to Pakistan on Dr. Afridi’s case, both in public and in private,” he said.
“We continue to raise this issue at the highest levels during discussions with Pakistan’s leadership. Pakistan has assured us that Dr. Afridi is being treated humanely and is in good health.”
Afridi was reportedly one of the topics discussed when National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster met in Washington last April with Pakistan’s finance minister Ishaq Dar, acting in the capacity of an envoy for then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
It was expected to feature again in an anticipated Trump-Sharif meeting on the sidelines of a U.S.-Arab-Islamic summit in Riyadh the following month, but instead the two had just a brief handshake. (Sharif’s premiership ended abruptly in July when the Supreme Court disqualified him from office.)
One of Pakistan’s numerous critics on Capitol Hill, Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), raised Afridi’s plight once again on the House floor last June.
“Pakistan claims to be United States’ number one counterterrorism ally, yet they hypocritically hold this hero in a Pakistani prison,” he said.
Accusing Pakistan of being “on the wrong side” in the war on terror, Poe said Afridi deserved a medal, not imprisonment.