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Doctor who aided hunt for Bin Laden languishes, forgotten

Afridi hasn’t seen his lawyer since 2012 and his wife and children are his only visitors

Image Credit: AP
Zain Muhammad, a former watchman for Osama bin Laden talks about him at the remains of bin Laden’s house, in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Shakil Afridi, who reportedly used a vaccination scam to identify Osama bin Laden’s home, has been languishing in jail since the al-Qaida leader was killed by U.S. Navy Seals in 2011 -- his case a metaphor for downward spiraling relations between his country and the U.S.
Gulf News

PESHAWAR: Shakil Afridi has languished in jail for years — since 2011, when the Pakistani doctor used a vaccination scam in an attempt to identify Osama Bin Laden’s home, aiding US. Navy Seals who tracked and killed the Al Qaida leader.

Americans might wonder how Pakistan could imprison a man who helped track down the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Pakistanis are apt to ask a different question: how could the United States betray its trust and cheapen its sovereignty with a secret night-time raid that shamed the military and its intelligence agencies?

“The Shakil Afridi saga is the perfect metaphor for US-Pakistan relations” — a growing tangle of mistrust and miscommunication that threatens to jeopardise key efforts against terrorism, said Michael Kugelman, Asia programme deputy director at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

The US believes its financial support entitles it to Pakistan’s backing in its efforts to defeat the Taliban — as a candidate, Donald Trump pledged to free Afridi, telling Fox News in April 2016 he would get him out of prison in “two minutes. … Because we give a lot of aid to Pakistan.” But Pakistan is resentful of what it sees as US interference in its affairs.

Mohammad Amir Rana, director of the independent Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies in Islamabad, said the trust deficit between the two countries is an old story that won’t be rewritten until Pakistan and the US revise their expectations of each other, recognise their divergent security concerns and plot an Afghan war strategy, other than the current one which is to both kill and talk to the Taliban.

“Shakil Afridi [is] part of the larger puzzle,” he said.

Afridi hasn’t seen his lawyer since 2012 and his wife and children are his only visitors. For two years his file “disappeared”, delaying a court appeal that still hasn’t proceeded. The courts now say a prosecutor is unavailable, his lawyer, Qamar Nadeem Afridi, told AP.

“Everyone is afraid to even talk about him, to mention his name,” and not without reason, said Nadeem, who is also Afridi’s cousin.

In Nadeem’s office, the wind whistles through a clumsily covered window shattered by a bullet. On another window, clear tape covers a second bullet hole, both from a shooting incident several years ago in which no suspects have been named. Another of Afridi’s lawyers was gunned down outside his Peshawar home and a Peshawar jail deputy superintendent, who had advocated on Afridi’s behalf, was shot and killed, said Nadeem.

Afridi used a fake hepatitis vaccination program to try to get DNA samples from Bin Laden’s family as a means of pinpointing his location. But he has not been charged in connection with the Bin Laden operation.

Tensions have grown between Pakistan and the US since Trump’s New Year’s Day tweet in which he accused Pakistan of taking $33 billion (Dh121 billion) in aid and giving only “deceit and lies” in return while harbouring Afghan insurgents who attack American soldiers in neighbouring Afghanistan. Days later, the United States suspended military aid to Pakistan, which could amount to $2 billion.

Infuriated by Trump’s tweet, Pakistan accused Washington of making it a scapegoat for its failure to bring peace to Afghanistan.

The Wilson Center’s Kugelman advocated a “scaled-down relationship” between the two countries. He said both sides need to agree to disagree on some issues and instead focus on those areas where they can agree to cooperate against terror groups that both regard as threats, including Daesh and Al Qaida.