By S.M. Hali
According to media reports, Pakistani prison authorities have moved Shakil Afridi – the jailed doctor believed to have helped the CIA hunt down Osama bin Laden – to Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi. Media sources quoted his attorney, who was speculating that the transfer could be a prelude to his release.
The continued imprisonment of Dr Shakil Afridi has long been a source of tension between Pakistan and the US, which cut military aid over accusations that Pakistan continues to shelter Taliban militants fighting US and Afghan soldiers in Afghanistan.
Afridi’s lawyer, Qamar Nadeem, confirmed the transfer of his client but said he was not sure of his location. Judicial officials could not be reached, nor could embassy officials for the US, which has for years called on Pakistan to release Afridi.
The doctor was accused of treason after word spread that he had helped the CIA collect genetic samples of the bin Laden family, paving the way for the 2011 US Navy SEAL raid in Abbottabad.
Arrested days after the U.S. operation, which Pakistan called a violation of its sovereignty, he was charged with aiding terrorists and sentenced to 23 years in jail for abetting terrorism. That conviction was overturned in 2013, but he is still serving time for other terrorism-related convictions, his lawyer said. He also faced a murder trial related to the death of a patient more than a decade ago. However, the lawyer said Afridi’s latest sentence was reduced to seven years in a clemency action, and he had served about that amount of time already.
On its website, Radio Sputnik, a Russian media outlet, claimed in a story titled “Source: the doctor who handed over ‘Bin Laden’ planned to escape from prison”. Quoting sources, the news outlet stated that Pakistan’s premier spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had received a tip that the US was planning a rescue operation similar to the one carried out to eliminate Bin Laden or assist the doctor to escape.
Readers may recall that soon after the elimination of Osama bin Laden, US media sources had carried a story that Dr Shakil Afridi, on the CIA’s instructions, had set up a fake vaccination agency to obtain DNA samples to confirm the presence of the Al-Qaeda leader in Abbottabad.
The doctor was arrested at the end of May 2011 and tried in court. The then head of the Pentagon, Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton openly recognized Afridi’s merit in eliminating bin Laden. The operation carried out by Americans in Pakistan without the knowledge of Pakistani security authorities received sharp criticism from Islamabad and seriously aggravated bilateral relations. Later on, at the verdict of the Pakistani court, Afridi was sent to prison. Additionally, the Pakistani authorities specified that the doctor was suspected of having links with the leader of the terrorist organisation Lashkar-i-Islam (which changed its name to “Jaish al-Islam”) Mangal Bagh.
President Donald Trump had promised to get Shakil Afridi released and had demanded the same of Pakistan. However, Islamabad refused to succumb to US pressure. Reportedly, when the ISI got wind of US’ plans to whisk Dr Afridi away, they thwarted that plot.
The case has suddenly entered the limelight again. While some retired defence personnel, discussing the issue on the media, have demanded that Pakistan enhance its vigilance lest US Navy SEALs attempt another adventure. Others believe that feeling the pressure of US sanctions, Islamabad may be considering releasing Dr Shakil Afridi. He has served his seven year term any way and might be eligible for release.
Dr Shakil Afridi was a major asset for the US, because he not only facilitated the assassination of Osama bin Laden, but enabled the CIA to collect computer hard discs from the his residence. According to CIA reports published in US media, 70,000 files were obtained out of which 4, 700 have been declassified and published in the media. Most of the images pertain to computer drawings while there is one that provides guidance on how to receive a green card. Another is a cover photo of the American author, Gabriel Weymann, written in 2006 on “Terror on the Internet”. There is also a cover photo of a book dedicated to Charles Darwin.
In addition, there are photographs of a number of devices which augment firearms, as well as images of ancient Arabic coins, advertising of various companies – including American ones. Judging by the publication, bin Laden kept photos of mosques on his computer, one of which is titled ‘radical Pakistani’. These discoveries are certainly strange and though provoking.
(The writer is a retired Group Captain of PAF. He is a columnist, analyst and TV talk show host, who has authored six books on current affairs, including three on China.)