Five years after Pakistani doctor Shakeel Afridi helped the CIA track and kill Osama bin Laden, his supporters say US authorities have left him to languish in jail in a bid to smooth troubled relations with Islamabad.
Afridi, believed to be in his mid-50s, has no access to a lawyer, and his appeal against a 23-year prison sentence for aiding the US operation has stalled.
“I have no hope of meeting him, no expectation for justice,” his elder brother Jamil told AFP.
The former senior surgeon lives in solitary confinement in a small room, according to his lawyer, able to see his immediate family no more than six times a year.
Afridi’s role in one of the most famous assassinations of recent decades is murky.
Details of how he was sought out by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) are unclear – Pakistani reports suggest officials at Save the Children acted as go-betweens, though the charity denies involvement.
What is known is that Afridi’s job was to run a fake Hepatitis C vaccination programme with the aim of obtaining genetic samples from Abbottabad, a garrison city and home to the Pakistan Military Academy.
It was there that al Qaeda chief bin Laden and his family had set up home in the mid-2000s, under the noses – and some say protection – of senior Pakistani military officers.
In the darkness of May 2, 2011, two helicopters carrying elite Navy Seals touched down inside the compound.
In a dramatic raid just one kilometre from the military academy, they fought their way in and surprised the terror mastermind.
They shot him in the head and fled with his body, abandoning a damaged Black Hawk helicopter.
The killing was a huge success for US President Barack Obama, whose country was profoundly scarred by the attacks on New York and Washington of September 2001.
It decapitated al Qaeda, badly hampering the organisation’s ability to carry out further atrocities.
But it drove a wedge between Islamabad and Washington, with lingering suspicions that the Pakistanis had for years been covering up the whereabouts of one of the world’s most wanted men.
Weeks after the raid, Afridi was arrested and thrown in jail, accused of having ties to militants, a charge he has always denied.
Commentators believe Pakistan opted to punish Afridi in this way, rather than try him for treason, because that would have entailed a public trial that would have thrown a spotlight on Islamabad’s role in harbouring bin Laden.
A furious US senate committee voted to cut aid to Islamabad by $33 million – $1 million for each year of his original sentence.
The sentence was later cut by 10 years.
But since then, US pressure for Afridi’s release has tapered off, and analysts say Washington has dropped the issue, preferring to concentrate on what it sees as more pressing matters – such as negotiating with Islamist extremists in Afghanistan.
“The Taliban talks have taken priority over everything. The Americans don’t want to muddy the water by raising other issues that are contentious,” says Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani author and security expert.
Qamar Nadeem, Afridi’s lawyer who has been denied access to him for the past two years, believes his client’s best hope for early release is US pressure, “But so far they have not shown their support,” he says.
Donald Trump, the Republican presidential frontrunner, claimed in an interview last week that if he became president he would get Pakistani authorities to release Afridi “in two minutes”.
“I would tell them, let [Afridi] out and I’m sure they would let [him] out. Because we give a lot of aid to Pakistan,” Trump told Fox News on Friday, adding that Pakistan “takes advantage like everybody else”.
His comments drew an angry rebuke from Pakistan’s interior minister on Monday. Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said the “government of Pakistan and not Donald Trump” would decide Afridi’s fate.
“Pakistan is not a colony of the United States of America,” he retorted, adding that Trump’s comments “serve to show not only his insensitivity but also his ignorance about Pakistan”.
Michael Kugelman, an analyst at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington said all hope is not lost for Afridi.
He said, rather than having abandoned him, the Americans may have decided that shouting about it is not going to work.
“In Washington the issue has likely moved off the front burner because it’s clear that Pakistan isn’t willing to play ball and negotiate an arrangement that could set him free,” he said.
“(But) the Afridi issue has never really gone away, and my sense is that US officials quietly press Pakistan about it from time to time.”
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)
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