Pakistan contends doctor's conviction wasn't tied to Bin Laden raid

Shakeel-afridi
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A Pakistani doctor arrested after helping the CIA track down Osama bin Laden was convicted and sentenced on charges of militancy, Pakistani authorities insisted Wednesday,  not because of his links with the effort to pinpoint the whereabouts of the Al Qaeda leader.

Officials released copies of the verdict handed down against Shakeel Afridi. They show that a tribal court convicted him of aiding Lashkar-e-Islam, a militant group based in the tribal region of Khyber along the Afghan border.

Characterizing the charges as being related to his alleged relationship with Lashkar-e-Islam makes it more difficult for Washington to continue to argue for Afridi’s release.

Last week when Khyber authorities announced Afridi’s conviction and sentence of 33 years, they said the treason verdict against him stemmed from his work with the CIA.

Up until this week, Pakistani authorities had never mentioned any pending charges against Afridi that alleged ties with militant groups. Instead, Islamabad had consistently maintained that he had been detained because he had been collaborating with the CIA, a foreign intelligence agency.

Lashkar-e-Islam lays claim to parts of the Khyber region and in recent years has carried out numerous attacks on Pakistani security forces as well as kidnappings and slayings of local tribespeople. According to the verdict, Afridi, once Khyber’s chief surgeon, gave Lashkar-e-Islam $22,000 and provided medical treatment to several of the group’s commanders.

The verdict also says that Afridi, 48, was convicted of allowing Lashkar-e-Islam commanders to use his offices at a Khyber hospital to plan attacks against Pakistani security forces, local schools and other government buildings.

“The accused was providing assistance to [Lashkar-e-Islam] because of his deep affiliation with it,” the verdict stated.

Afridi was tried under a set of laws that applies to the country’s semi-autonomous tribal region, in which a council of elders hears evidence. The system, a throwback from the period of British colonial rule, does not allow a defendant to present material evidence, cross-examine witnesses or be represented by a lawyer.

Afridi led a fake hepatitis B vaccination campaign in the military city of Abbottabad in an attempt to secure DNA evidence from Bin Laden’s residence. The samples would have been compared to DNA evidence from the Al Qaeda leader's relatives on file in Washington.

Afridi was not able to get the samples, but U.S. officials have said he provided information that helped locate Bin Laden. Pakistani authorities arrested Afridi shortly after the U.S. commando raid that killed Bin Laden at his compound in Abbottabad in May 2011.

The U.S. sought his release, contending that Afridi was a hero rather than a traitor, and had helped track down the world’s most wanted man. Pakistanis, however, viewed Afridi as a spy, and a governmental commission that investigated the Abbottabad raid later recommended that the Pakistani doctor be tried on treason charges.

The verdict stated that investigators had provided evidence of Afridi’s involvement with “foreign intelligence agencies,” an apparent reference to the CIA, but added that the tribal court lacked jurisdiction to rule on that evidence.

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-- Alex Rodriguez in Islamabad and Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan

Photo:  Pakistani surgeon Shakeel Afridi, shown in July 2010  in the Khyber tribal district. Credit: Mohammad Rauf / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

 
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