The Pakistani doctor who helped the CIA hunt for Osama bin Laden was sentenced Wednesday to 33 years in prison for treason in an administrative action under colonial-era laws that avoided a public trial.
The move brought condemnation in Washington, where officials had been hoping to win freedom for Dr. Shakil Afridi, whom Pakistani intelligence agents detained three weeks after the May 2, 2011, U.S. special forces raid in the northern town of Abbottabad that ended in bin Laden’s death.
Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Carl Levin, D-Mich., called the verdict “shocking and outrageous” in a statement.
“What Dr. Afridi did is the furthest thing from treason. It was a courageous, heroic and patriotic act, which helped to locate the most wanted terrorist in the world – a mass murderer who had the blood of many innocent Pakistanis on his hands,” the statement said. “Dr. Afridi set an example that we wish others in Pakistan had followed long ago. He should be praised and rewarded for his actions, not punished and slandered.”
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McClatchy revealed last July that Afridi had set up a fake health program in Abbottabad, sending health workers door to door to vaccinate residents for hepatitis B, in an effort to get DNA samples from the house where the CIA suspected that bin Laden lived.
American officials were never sure that bin Laden was in the home, to which they’d traced a key al Qaida courier. Afridi’s work, carried out in the weeks leading up to the raid, was an important part of the CIA’s attempts to verify that bin Laden was in the Abbottabad house before mounting a risky operation to kill him in another country. It remains unclear whether Afridi’s efforts gained any useful information.
Agents of the Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate arrested Afridi three weeks after the bin Laden raid. U.S. officials suspect that he’s been tortured in custody, a claim that Pakistani military officials have angrily denied.
The manner in which Afridi’s case was handled is sure to inflame U.S. opinion. An official in Pakistan’s tribal area tried the doctor under the draconian Frontier Crimes Regulation, which was imposed when Pakistan was a British colony. There’s no judge, and an employee of the local government oversees the process. The law gives that official the power to declare a suspect guilty and impose a sentence that can even sanction other members of a defendant’s tribe.
The Pakistani government justified handing jurisdiction of the matter to the tribal area court because Afridi was officially employed to work in the tribal area, in the part known as the Khyber agency, and is a member of a local tribe. Had his case been handled in Abbottabad, where his alleged offenses were committed, or in Islamabad, he would have been entitled to a court proceeding in which a judge would have considered his actions.
News reports here said Afridi was sent Wednesday to the Central Jail in Peshawar, the main city in the northwest of the country. Nasir Khan, a senior administration official in Khyber, told journalists there that in addition to the prison term, Afridi had been fined the equivalent of $3,550.
The local nurses and other health officials in Abbottabad who unwittingly cooperated with Afridi have been fired, and his wife lost her teaching job.
In January, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who was the director of the CIA at the time of the bin Laden raid, went public with Washington’s concerns about Afridi.
“I am very concerned about what the Pakistanis did with this individual. This was an individual who, in fact, helped provide intelligence that was very helpful with regard to this operation,” Panetta said during an interview aired by CBS. “He was not in any way treasonous towards Pakistan. He was not in any way doing anything that would have undermined Pakistan.”
Panetta declined to comment Wednesday about Afridi’s case specifically. "Anyone who supported the U.S. in finding Osama bin Laden was not working against Pakistan but working against al Qaida," Pentagon spokesman George Little said.
Pakistan regarded the bin Laden raid as a national humiliation, and the cooperation of one of its citizens angered many here. Panetta’s remarks confirmed on the record that Afridi had worked for the CIA. Under the laws in Pakistan – and many other countries, including the United States – working for a foreign intelligence agency is a crime.
U.S.-Pakistani relations disintegrated last year over a series of clashes, including the bin Laden raid, culminating in a “friendly fire” episode in November in which American aircraft mistakenly attacked two Pakistani border outposts, killing 24 soldiers. In response, Pakistan stopped permitting NATO supplies headed for Afghanistan to pass through its territory.
American officials are likely to continue to press Pakistan for Afridi’s release, though that negotiation will be harder now that he’s been sentenced, as the diplomatic bargain required to free him will be costlier. American officials have told McClatchy in the past that concern for Afridi goes right up to President Barack Obama.
Matthew Schofield contributed to this report from Washington.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified one the senators who issued a statement condemning the sentence. In addition to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the other senator was Carl Levin, D-Mich.