US to press for release of Pakistani doctor who helped find Bin Laden
Chris McGreal (Guardian) Washington:The US has said it will press for the release of a Pakistani doctor who has been jailed for 33 years for running a fake CIA vaccination programme as part of the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
The US state department said there is “no basis” for the arrest and detention of Dr Shakil Afridi, the former surgeon-general of Khyber, who was convicted of treason over the scheme to identify Bin Laden through DNA.
But even as senior American politicians denounced the sentence as “outrageous”, the Obama administration shied away from strong comment on the trial itself as officials said that the legal process is not at an end. Officials are hoping that the sentence can be shortened or overturned on appeal.
“We continue to see no basis for these charges, for him being held, for any of it,” said the state department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland. “We will continue to make representations.”
Privately, Obama administration officials are angered by Afridi’s arrest and trial which is further evidence of the sharp deterioration in relations with Pakistan. They say that the doctor did not act against Pakistan but against al-Qaida.
Two US senators, John McCain and Carl Levin, denounced Afridi’s conviction and demanded his immediate release.
“Afridi’s actions were completely consistent with the multiple, legally-binding resolutions passed over many years by the United Nations Security Council, which required member states to assist in bringing Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network to justice,” the two senior Senators on the armed services committee said in a joint statement.
“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.
“At a time when the US and Pakistan need more than ever to work constructively together, Afridi’s continuing imprisonment and treatment as a criminal will only do further harm to US-Pakistani relations, including diminishing Congress’s willingness to provide financial assistance to Pakistan.”
Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, chairman of a foreign affairs subcommittee, demanded the Obama administration take punitive action against Pakistan.
“This is decisive proof Pakistan sees itself as being at war with us,” he said.
Afridi’s sentence will further alarm western critics of Pakistan who say the country has put far more effort into trying to understand how US spies and special forces were able to plan and launch the Bin Laden raid than into how the al-Qaida leader was able to remain for so long in the Pakistani army garrison town of Abbottabad.
The sentence was announced just days after Barack Obama snubbed the Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari, by refusing to hold a formal meeting with him at the Nato conference in Chicago.
In January, Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary, said he was “very concerned” about the arrest of Afridi after Pakistan’s intelligence service discovered he had set up a fake hepatitis B vaccination scheme with his nurses going from house to house in Abbottabad in the weeks before the raid on Bin Laden’s hideout in May last year.
“For them to take this kind of action against somebody who was helping to go after terrorism, I just think it is a real mistake on their part,” Panetta said in January.
There had been hopes that Afridi would eventually be quietly released after the controversy surrounding the Bin Laden raid had subsided.
US intelligence officials say the clandestine operation by Afridi did not succeed in determining whether Bin Laden was in the house and the raid went ahead without any certainty that the Navy Seal team would find its target.
However, Pakistani security officials recently told the Guardian that although the nurses working for Afridi were not allowed inside the house to vaccinate any of the children, they did succeed in getting a mobile phone number for someone in the house.
The Pakistani sources say that phone call allowed the CIA to make a voice match to Bin Laden’s private courier, a man known as Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti.
US aid groups have complained that the bogus vaccination operation undermined their efforts “to eradicate polio, provide critical health services, and extend life-saving assistance during times of crisis” in Pakistan. The ruse may have fuelled fears, backed by religious extremists, that polio drops are a western conspiracy to sterilise the population.