ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A Pakistani doctor who led a phony vaccination campaign aimed at helping the CIA pinpoint Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts was convicted of treason Wednesday and sentenced to 33 years in prison, a decision that is likely to further erode Washington’s fragile relations with Islamabad.
The U.S. has been seeking the release of Shakeel Afridi ever since his arrest by Pakistani authorities after the secret U.S. commando raid that killed the Al Qaeda leader in his compound in the military city of Abbottabad a year ago. In January, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told CBS’ "60 Minutes" that Afridi had provided intelligence that assisted the raid and criticized Pakistan’s arrest of someone involved in helping track down the world’s most wanted man.
From the start, however, Pakistani authorities have regarded Afridi as a traitor and have ignored Washington’s calls for his release. He was tried in a tribal court in the Khyber region along the Afghan border, where he once was designated the chief surgeon.
Under Pakistani law, he could have been given the death penalty. In addition to the 33-year term, Afridi was also fined about $3,500.
The phony hepatitis B vaccination scheme was aimed at obtaining DNA evidence from Bin Laden’s residence, a sprawling, three-story compound down the road from the Pakistani military’s version of West Point and just a two hours’ drive from the capital, Islamabad. DNA samples would have allowed U.S. authorities to compare that evidence with DNA from Bin Laden relatives on file in Washington.
Afridi and his team of healthcare workers were unable to obtain DNA samples from the Bin Laden compound, but Panetta told "60 Minutes" that he provided information to the CIA that was “very helpful.”
However, Afridi’s vaccination ruse has also severely hampered the work of numerous Western aid organizations in Pakistan that report being harassed by the country's intelligence agents, who have grown suspicious of their affiliations. Some aid groups have reported difficulties in getting visas renewed for their Pakistan-based workers, while others say they are under constant surveillance by authorities or have had workers detained.
-- Alex Rodriguez
Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.
Photo: Pakistanis walk past the Peshawar central jail where Shakeel Afridi, who helped U.S. intelligence find Osama bin Laden, was moved after being found guilty of treason. Credit: A. Majeed / Agence France-Presse/Getty Images