Family of doctor who helped US target bin Laden plead for his release

Ben Farmer
The US's fake vaccination campaign has prompted a backlash against vaccinators, meaning they need protection from armed guards - AP

The family of a jailed Pakistani doctor who helped the CIA find Osama bin Laden has said his health is failing and have again claimed his innocence.

Shakil Afridi has been in solitary confinement for eight years after he was arrested soon after US special forces killed the al-Qaeda leader in a raid on his Abbottabad hiding place.

The doctor helped run a fake hepatitis B vaccination programme to pinpoint bin Laden by taking DNA samples from children to identify his relatives, US and Pakistani officials have said.

Afridi faced the wrath of Pakistan's intelligence agencies after the raid, which they considered a humiliating violation of sovereignty. He was first accused of spying and treason, but then convicted of separate charges of funding Lashkar-e-Islam, a now defunct banned militant group. He was sentenced to 33 years in prison, later cut to 23 on appeal.

A new appeal against the terrorism funding charges began earlier this month at Peshawar High Court. Afridi's lawyer, Qamar Nadeem, said his client had never committed treason, or spied for the Americans. The charges against him were brought in bad faith and his client should be free, he argued. The appeal was adjourned on Tuesday until November.

Jamil Afridi, his older brother, said the doctor was being held in “deplorable” conditions in Sahiwal Jail in Punjab province and “his health is deteriorating rapidly”. “He has become extremely weak and frail,” he told the Telegraph.

Afridi has been hailed as a hero in the United States, but is widely viewed as a traitor in Pakistan. In 2012 Leon Panetta, then US Defence Secretary, said he had provided “very helpful” intelligence to the CIA bin Laden operation. Mr Panetta expressed anger that the doctor had been charged with treason.

“For them to take this kind of action against somebody who was helping to go after terrorism, I just think is a real mistake on their part,” he said.

The CIA plan to find bin Laden under cover of a vaccination programme has been blamed for dramatically undermining trust in genuine door-to-door medical campaigns. Afridi's scheme is notorious in Pakistan and has fed conspiracy theories that the polio eradication campaign is a Western plot to spy on people, or even to sterilise Muslims.

Donald Trump said in 2016 that he would secure Afridi's release “in two minutes” if he was elected president.

“I would tell them let (him) out and I’m sure they would let (him) out. Because we give a lot of aid to Pakistan,” he said at the time.

Pakistan's prime minister raised the possibility of a prisoner swap during his July visit to Washington. Imran Khan said said Afridi could be exchanged for Aafia Siddiqui, a female Pakistani scientist serving 86 years in prison after she was convicted of attempting to kill US troops in Afghanistan.

But Afridi's brother said he was not interested in the exchange.

“My brother is innocent. He has no connection with CIA but is a patriotic citizen of Pakistan who served as a government servant,” he said.

Afridi's brother said the family were only allowed to meet him twice a month, under strict supervision. They had been ordered to speak Urdu, rather than their first language of Pashto, so that intelligence officers could understand what was being said. Six people are allowed in each visit.

Afridi's conviction has devastated the rest of the family, who are living in hiding because of fears of reprisal, he said.

“I go out of the city in one car and return in another. At times, we travel in passenger vehicles so that we can be spotted by anyone,” the brother said. “Shakil’s conviction has actually endangered our lives and we need protection and liberty like all free people.”

The discovery of the world's most wanted terrorist within a few miles of a prestigious Pakistani military academy saw relations between America and Pakistan plummet. US officials said it was inconceivable bin Laden was living in his compound without support and suggested at least elements of Pakistan's security apparatus knew of his presence.

A Pakistan government commission later sharply criticised the intelligence agencies for failing to detect Bin Laden. How much the Pakistani state knew remains a sensitive subject.

Mr Khan suggested during his trip to Washington that it was the country's powerful military spy service, the ISI, that tipped off America about Bin Laden's position. There have also been claims that Afridi is a scapegoat, who was accused to hide the identity of the CIA's real agent.

Afridi was tried in Pakistan's tribal border belt, under British colonial era laws that denied him a full, open trial. He was instead convicted by a tribal court in secret. Those laws have now been scrapped, paving the way for Afridi's appeal to be heard in open court for the first time.

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