AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE
ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s problematic relationship with the United States sailed into fresh controversy today as US lawmakers warned of aid cuts after the jailing of a surgeon who helped the CIA hunt down Osama bin Laden.
Shakeeel Afridi was found guilty of treason, sentenced to 33 years in prison and fined 320,000 rupees ($3,500) under an archaic tribal justice system that has governed Pakistan’s semi-autonomous tribal belt since British rule.
His sentencing was announced two days after Barack Obama appeared to snub Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari at a NATO summit in Chicago over Islamabad’s refusal to lift a six-month blockade on NATO transit rights into Afghanistan.
Afridi was not entitled to a lawyer but was given a chance to defend himself and has a right to appeal the verdict, officials said.
Critics said he should not have been tried under tribal law for an alleged crime that took place outside the tribal belt, in the town of Abbottabad where he ran a fake vaccination programme designed to collect bin Laden family DNA.
The US government said Pakistan had no basis to hold Afridi, whom an official at Peshawar central jail said was in poor health and being kept away from other prisoners to avoid any danger to his life.
“Anyone who supported the United States in finding Osama bin Laden was not working against Pakistan, they were working against Al-Qaeda,” Pentagon press secretary George Little told reporters.
Senators Carl Levin and John McCain, from the two major parties on the Senate Armed Services Committee, demanded Afridi be pardoned and freed “immediately”, saying the decision could put US financial assistance at risk.
“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,” they said.
The United States has given Pakistan more than $18 billion in assistance since the September 11, 2001 attacks, but US officials have persistent concerns that some elements of the establishment have maintained support for extremists.
Pakistan was tight lipped about the threatened cuts.
“We respect their legislative process but obviously the case of Doctor Shakeel Afridi will be decided in accordance with Pakistani laws and by the Pakistan courts,” foreign ministry spokesman Moazzam Ahmad Khan told AFP.
Pakistani-US relations went into free fall last year, starting when a CIA contractor shot dead two Pakistanis, then over the American raid that killed bin Laden on May 2 and lastly over US air strikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November.
Doc ‘weak and depressed’
PESHAWAR: The Pakistani doctor sentenced to 33 years for treason after being recruited by the CIA to help find Osama bin Laden is in poor health and under medical watch, officials told AFP on Thursday. Shakeel Afridi is being held at the central prison in the northwestern city of Peshawar and was twice examined on Thursday by doctors who found him ‘weak, depressed and complaining of a bad stomach’, a senior health official said. “Afridi was first examined by a team of local doctors, then another team of senior doctors visited him in jail,” the official told AFP, requesting anonymity as he was not authorised to talk to the media. “Doctors prescribed some medicine, which was immediately provided. He will remain under medical observation inside the jail.” A jail official said Afridi was being held in a private cell with extra security, with paramilitary and commandos deployed outside. Earlier on Thursday, jail official Samad Khan said Afridi was in poor health and being kept away from other prisoners to avert any danger to his life.