Pakistani who helped CIA gets 33 years

The doctor, accused of treason, ran a fake health program to obtain DNA samples in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

Posted: May 24, 2012

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - 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 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 Joseph I. Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, 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."

McClatchy revealed in 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.

U.S. officials were never sure that bin Laden was in the home, to which they'd traced a key al-Qaeda 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 jury would have considered his actions.

News reports said Afridi was sent Wednesday to the Central Jail in Peshawar. 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.

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