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    South Asia
     Feb 8, 2012


Pakistan snubs US over Osama informer
By Amir Mir

ISLAMABAD - Pakistan has turned down a demand by United States Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to release a Pakistani physician who faces treason charges for helping the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the operation to kill Osama bin Laden.

Pakistan's political and military leaders discussed at length Panetta's demand and decided the alleged informer, Dr Shakil Afridi, should not be given leeway, according to highly placed Foreign Office sources in Islamabad. The snub was made in light of a recommendation from the Abbottabad Judicial Commission to register a treason case against him. The commission is investigating the raid on Bin Laden's hide-out in the Abbottabad by US Special Forces, who killed the al-Qaeda leader on May 2, 2011.

Afridi, who the commission has declared a "national criminal", has been charged with conspiring against the state by

 

collaborating with a foreign spy agency, but not yet with treason - a charge that would carry the death penalty. The doctor was arrested by Pakistani security agencies at his house in Hayatabad, Peshawar, 20 days after Bin Laden's death. In his appearance before the commission, Afridi confessed to having set up a vaccination campaign in Abbottabad aimed at collecting DNA samples to establish the whereabouts of Bin Laden and his family.

In a January 28 interview with CBS, Panetta, who headed the CIA when Afridi worked for the agency, urged the Pakistani authorities to release the doctor immediately. However, sources in the security agencies rule out any such possibility, saying he will be tried in accordance with the orders of the commission, tasked with probing the covert American raid in Abbottabad in which the most wanted al-Qaeda chief was shot dead along with his son and two aides.

Afridi confessed to conducting a fake polio vaccination drive in the Bilal Town area of Abbottabad from March 15-18 and April 21-23, 2011 to try and get DNA samples from the residents of the compound in which Bin Laden was hiding. The four-member Abbottabad Judicial Commission, led by Led by Justice (retired) Javed Iqbal and set up through a resolution passed unanimously by a joint session of parliament 11 days after the raid, is putting the final touches to its report, though it has already directed the government not to hand over Afridi to the Americans and to proceed with the treason charges.

Panetta's statement comes as US lawmakers push for a bill that would give US citizenship to Afridi, who is in his late 40s and has an American wife of Pakistani origin.

Well-informed diplomats in Islamabad believe the orders to initiate a treason trial against Afridi must have something to do with the apparent refusal of the CIA to provide any information to the commission after it had been sent a detailed questionnaire last year through the Pakistani Foreign Office. Pakistani security agencies continue to interrogate Afridi in a bid to ascertain how the CIA recruited him and several other civilians who have been under interrogation since the Abbottabad raid. This would help them expose the American's recruitment network in Pakistan.

Coming from a humble background, Afridi graduated from the Khyber Medical College in Peshawar in 1990 and was working as the doctor in-charge of Khyber Agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan. The doctor's close aides say the whereabouts of his family remains unknown.

Defense Secretary Panetta admitted in his January 28 interview that the doctor had been working for the Americans and had provided information to the CIA about the fugitive al-Qaeda chief. Based on this information, US Navy Seals raided his hideout, killed him and then buried him at sea.

In the interview, Panetta was asked: "There is a Pakistani doctor who, as we understand, was helping our efforts there, a man named Shakil Afridi, who is now being charged with high treason in Pakistan and I wonder what you think of that?"

Panetta replied: "I am very concerned about what the Pakistanis did with this individual. This was an individual who, in fact, had helped provide intelligence that was very helpful with regard to this operation. And he was not in any way treasonous towards Pakistan. He was not in any way doing anything that would have undermined Pakistan. As a matter of fact, Pakistan and the United States have a common cause here against terrorism, have a common cause against al-Qaeda, and have a common cause against those who will attack not only our country but their country. And 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."

"Should they free him?" the CBS interviewer asked. "They can take whatever steps they want to do to discipline him, but ultimately he ought to be released," Panetta replied.

Afridi's arrest has become a thorn in the already tense relations between Islamabad and Washington.

United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton telephoned President Asif Ali Zardari in July last year to seek his help in securing Afridi's release, but her request was reportedly turned down. Clinton was told that the matter was sub judice and only the Judicial Commission could decide his fate.

In a related development, a group of US congressmen has introduced legislation in the House of Representatives seeking citizenship for Afridi. "Today, I have introduced legislation to grant American citizenship to Shakeel Afridi, the Pakistan medical doctor who risked his life to identify Osama bin Laden and help US military forces bring him to justice. If convicted, he could be executed," said congressman from California Dana Rohrabacher on February 4.

"My bill would grant him US citizenship and send a direct and powerful message to those in the Pakistani government and military who protected the mastermind of 9/11 for all those years and who are now seeking retribution on those who helped to execute Osama bin Laden," Rohrabacher said in the House.

The citizenship bill has been endorsed by more than a dozen top congressmen, including Bill Posey and Roscoe Bartlett. "This bill shows the world that America does not abandon its friends," Rohrabacher said.

The physician used a team of nurses and health workers to administer hepatitis B vaccinations in Abbottabad, without even informing the proper authorities. US officials have already stated that the doctor did manage to gain access to Bin Laden's compound, but he was unsuccessful in getting DNA samples from any of his family members.

As things stand, Afridi's fate seems to have already been sealed by the commission, though it is not yet clear whether he will be tried under Article 6 of the 1973 constitution (on treason charges), or whether he is to be prosecuted for indulging in espionage activities for a foreign country. Article 6 of the constitution that deals with sedition chiefly dictates that high treason is determined by a criminal spying on the country's military, its diplomats or its secret services for a foreign power.

There remains among senior diplomats in Islamabad some skepticism of the commission's directives to the Pakistani authorities; the million-dollar question raised by them is how Afridi harmed the national interest by helping locate the world's most sought-after terrorist who was responsible for the deaths of over 3,000 civilians in the 9/11 attack on the United States.

Amir Mir is a senior Pakistani journalist and the author of several books on the subject of militant Islam and terrorism, the latest being The Bhutto murder trail: From Waziristan to GHQ.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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