Dr. Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani surgeon accused of helping the CIA find Osama bin Laden, was sentenced Wednesday to 33 years in jail for treason and fined $3,500 for spying for the United States. Recruited by the CIA, Dr. Afridi reportedly ran a fake vaccination program in the Taliban-infested Khyber province on behalf of the U.S. intelligence agency to collect DNA samples from residents of bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. He did this in order to verify the presence of the al-Qaeda leader within the city, and his work is said to have helped the U.S. eventually locate and assassinate the wanted terror leader.
Afridi was fired from his job as a government doctor two months ago amidst this controversy, and he was found guilty of treason by Khyber’s tribal justice courts that do not allow defendants access to a lawyer. He was tried under Frontier Crimes Regulations, or FCR, the set of laws dating from the British colonial era that govern Pakistan’s semi-autonomous tribal region. Human rights groups have criticized the FCR for not giving the accused due process of law, as the system does not allow suspects the right to legal representation, present material evidence, and cross-examine witnesses. Afridi was not present at his trial.
Dr. Shakil Afridi (Photo: The Express Tribune)
Prominent American officials are loudly calling for Afridi’s release, such as U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta — CIA Chief at the time of the Abottabad raid. And Congressman Dana Rohrabacher introduced bills in the House of Representatives that propose awarding Afridi a Congressional Gold Medal and making him a naturalized American citizen.
Afridi’s sentencing is likely to further damage relations between Islamabad and Washington, which have been increasingly strained since the raid on bin Laden’s compound last May. Pakistani officials were angered that they were not told of the raid beforehand, which they considered a violation of their sovereignty. The U.S. reportedly did not disclose its plans because of intelligence that a Pakistani government official was aware of bin Laden’s whereabouts. Diplomatic relations with Pakistan further worsened when the South Asian nation kicked the U.S. out of a base used by American drones and closed NATO supply routes to Afghanistan in November. The supply routes in question are crucial to the orderly withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. The Afridi case adds new elements to the strained American-Pakistani relationship, and highlights the Pakistani justice system’s lack of respect for human rights and due process. In addition, the U.S. sees this as an unfair punishment for a person that helped bring down one of the world’s most notorious terrorists.
This morning’s sentencing is a pivotal moment in American-Pakistani relations. It is often forgotten that Pakistan is a self-styled Islamic Republic, just like Iran. The Dr. Afridi case showcases the unfair, outdated, and draconian nature of the Pakistani legal system that has little respect for human rights. As Pakistan is anticipating receiving over $1 billion in conditional aid from the United States, Washington should consider using that aid as leverage to help free Afridi. The problem, of course, runs deeper than the Afridi case, and again brings to light the oft-asked question of whether or not U.S. money to Pakistan is actually aiding the American cause.