Doctor Imprisoned

Pakistan Sentences Shakil Afridi to 30 Years, Sends U.S. Clear Signal

Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai on the message behind the harsh sentence for the doctor who helped the CIA.

Banaras Khan, AFP / Getty Images; Qazi Rauf / AP Photo

Just when it seemed Pakistan’s always volatile relations with the United States couldn’t get any worse, Islamabad further annoyed Washington by sentencing the Pakistani physician who had aided the CIA in pinpointing the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden to a 33-year prison term.

Shakil Afridi, 48, who is at the center of the latest breakdown in relations, was an ambitious, competent, and controversial Pakistani physician in the Khyber agency. From a humble background he rose to become the agency’s top surgeon, but he also clashed with authorities and colleagues. In 2010 he was suspended for six months for allegedly performing unnecessary operations in order to earn extra money. A nurse accused him of sexual harassment. Another doctor claimed that Afridi ran off with several WHO-supplied boxes of vaccines. He also was active in spearheading polio inoculation campaigns in the region, an activity that may have brought him to the CIA’s attention.

According to the Pakistani charges, the CIA hired Afridi to run a phony hepatitis B vaccination campaign in an effort to get blood samples from the several children living at bin Laden’s sprawling Abbottabad compound. He was frequently absent from his Khyber agency base in early 2011, which caused some of his colleagues to suspect that he was having an affair in Abbottabad. When questioned, he replied that he had “business” to attend to. But he had rented a house near bin Laden’s three-story home and hired nurses in an attempt to gain entry and take a necessary blood sample before any hepatitis vaccination could be administered. The CIA hoped a successful blood sample, when matched with DNA samples the agency already had from other bin Laden family members, would provide proof that bin Laden or at least his family was living in the compound. It’s unclear if one of Afridi’s nurses ever gained entry to the compound and obtained a blood sample from one of the children.

Three weeks after the raid, the Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency arrested Afridi in a smugglers’ bazaar on the border between Peshawar city and the Khyber agency. (One big unanswered question: why he didn’t leave the country as soon as bin Laden was killed, and why didn’t the CIA spirit him out of Pakistan?) Within hours, his Pakistani-born wife—an American citizen—and their three children vanished from their house in Peshawar. Their whereabouts are unknown. Afridi was whisked away to an ISI safe house, where he has been held until this week’s sentencing. In February, 15 nurses and two public health officials were fired from their jobs in the Khyber agency, allegedly as a result of their past association with Afridi.

Even before the Pakistani court in the northwestern Khyber Tribal Agency delivered its harsh verdict, U.S. patience with its major non-NATO ally seemed to be running out. The U.S. has been waiting six months for Pakistan to reopen the strategic supply corridor between the port of Karachi and the Afghan border in the historic Khyber Pass, over which flows some 40 percent of the coalition’s supplies for its troops in Afghanistan. Although privately furious about Pakistan’s foot dragging on reopening the supply route and reluctant to reward Islamabad in the midst of the controversy, the U.S. and its NATO allies had hoped that extending an invitation to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to last weekend’s NATO summit in Chicago would encourage Pakistan to allow the cargo trucks and fuel tankers to begin running again.

There were some hopeful signs. Pakistan’s photogenic foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, had hinted just days before the summit that Pakistan was ready to let bygones be bygones. “Pakistan has made its point and now we can move on,” she said, referring to the supply route, shut down in protest over the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers in November in a U.S. air attack on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

But Zardari’s trip to Chicago did nothing to break the logjam. With the supply route still closed upon Zardari’s arrival, the White House decided to treat him with less than full honors. Afghan President Hamid Karzai had a lengthy private meeting with Obama, but Zardari was not given the same one-on-one treatment. Obama spoke with Zardari twice, both times briefly: once while walking into the conference and again during what was largely a meeting between Obama and Karzai. Clearly the Pakistanis felt the sting. The Pakistani press even talked of his “humiliation” in Washington.

Although it sounds like a stretch, Pakistani journalists and some Western diplomats in Islamabad tried to link the apparent slight Zardari suffered in Chicago with the sudden and harsh jail sentence Wednesday for Shakil Afridi. Nonetheless, with the sentencing Pakistan is sending out a clear message to Washington and to Pakistanis that it would not tolerate the recruitment of its citizens by the CIA.

The CIA presence in Pakistan has been a major political issue for more than a year, ever since Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor, shot and killed two Pakistanis on at a traffic light in Lahore in January 2011. Spy fever was fueled further in last May’s commando raid by US Navy SEALs that killed bin Laden inside his three-story house in Abbottabad, the military’s garrison town and tourist destination, less than 100 miles from Islamabad. The unilateral U.S. raid, which Pakistan knew nothing about until it was over, deeply embarrassed the Pakistani government and military and further angered the already anti-American public.

Then came the U.S. air attack last November on two Pakistani military positions along the border. The strike, which the U.S. said was the result of errors made by both sides, brought relations nearly to the breaking point and led to the immediate closure of the supply corridor. In retaliation, the U.S. decided to freeze hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and reimbursements to the Pakistani military for its role in the fight against al Qaeda and Taliban militants along the border.

Angered over all three incidents and the aid freeze, the Pakistani military and the Zardari government decided to “reset” the relationship with the U.S., which they said ignored Pakistani sovereignty. Parliament was asked to produce a set of recommendations to guide the government’s links with Washington. After weeks of debate, parliament finally produced a list of demands to the U.S., one of which couldn’t possibly be met: an immediate end to the highly unpopular drone strikes in the tribal areas targeting al Qaeda and Taliban militants. The other was a full, public apology from Washington for the deaths of the 24 Pakistani troops. The U.S. expressed its regret but decided not to issue a full apology, certainly not during a presidential election campaign.

While Afridi’s sentencing may not be tied directly to Washington’s alleged snub to Zardari in Chicago, there is no doubt that the harsh punishment was approved at the highest levels of government to make a point to both the U.S. and to Pakistanis citizens. It’s clear that the government wanted to make an example of Afridi, even though Islamabad was well aware of Washington’s view that Afridi should not have been prosecuted at all. In a television interview in January, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta declared that Afridi had provided “intelligence that was very helpful” and that it was “a real mistake” on Pakistan’s part to have imprisoned him.

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Pakistan’s clear message to the U.S.: don’t violate our sovereignty. Its message to its own citizens: don’t even think about cooperating with the CIA. To ensure that Afridi would be found guilty and sentenced harshly, Islamabad arranged to have him tried in a government court presided over by a tribal political agent in consultation with a council of elders under the 19th-century Frontier Crimes Regulations that were drawn up by the British colonial power at the time. Under the FCR, the court is not subject to the Pakistani constitution, and its sentences are usually harsher than those handed down by the mainstream Pakistani court system. Nor can the sentences of tribal courts be appealed in normal Pakistani courts. Once sentenced, Afridi was transferred immediately out of the Khyber tribal agency and thrown into the Central Prison in Peshawar.

The government insists it will ensure his safety. But many Pakistanis are not so sure. In the court of public opinion, he is seen as a traitor. Not surprisingly, the Pakistani Taliban praised the sentence. “In my heart I wanted to kiss feet of the political agent for punishing Shakil with a lifelong prison term,” Janfida Wazir, a Pakistani Taliban commander from the South Waziristan tribal agency, tells The Daily Beast. “Our mujahideen, Sheik Osama’s family, and I are very happy with the great judgment of the political agent.”

Wazir also says militants are determined to kidnap or kill Afridi if they get the chance. “Shakil is a dead man already,” he says. “The government can’t build a separate jail for him.” Afghans and Pakistanis who are cooperating with the U.S. eventually will meet Afridi’s fate and be abandoned by the U.S., adds Wazir. “What happened to Afridi is a good lesson for those puppets of the U.S. in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” he says. “They will be thrown away like rubbish after the U.S. has achieved its goals.”

Given the burst of publicity surrounding the case and Afridi’s sentencing by a tribal court, he is unlikely to be freed anytime soon. “Pakistan now will never release Dr. Shakil,” says a senior Pakistani security official in Peshawar. “His case too high profile and polarized.” A Western diplomat in Islamabad echoes that statement: “Before this judgment it was possible for the government to free Shakil, but now it will be next to impossible for the U.S. to get its friend out of Pakistan.” Already rumors are rife in Islamabad that the U.S. may be ginning up another U.S. SEAL raid to swoop in and snatch him to freedom.

A Pakistani security official tells The Daily Beast that he understands from Afridi’s interrogation that the doctor was unaware of the target of his phony vaccination campaign in the Pakistan garrison town and tourist resort of Abbottabad, less than 100 miles from Islamabad. According to the source, Afridi was told that he and his team of nurses should try to get DNA samples from some 50 houses in the target area. “He says he was told that they were looking for someone but not exactly who that person was,” the security official says.

Whatever Afridi did or did not know makes little difference now. As long as Pakistan’s relations with the U.S. remain rocky, and there is no sign they will improve in the near future, his chances for freedom are slim indeed.