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    South Asia
     May 18, 2012


Fate of Osama informer hangs in balance
By Amir Mir

ISLAMABAD - The fate of Dr Shakeel Afridi, the Pakistani physician who helped the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) track down and kill al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, hangs in the balance a year after his arrest by Pakistani security agencies on a charge of carrying out a fake vaccination campaign in Abbottabad to obtain DNA samples of Bin Laden's family members.

In the early hours of May 2, 2011, a joint military force led by US Navy SEALS attacked a compound in Abbottabad in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province 50 kilometers northeast of the capital Islamabad and killed Bin Laden. He had evaded detection for 10 years after fleeing from Afghanistan in late 2001 at the height of the US-led invasion to oust the Taliban regime.

Afridi, who is under arrest for treason, has already confessed to

 

having conducted a fake polio vaccination drive in the Bilal Town area of Abbottabad between March 15-18 and April 21-23, 2011, to get DNA samples of the residents of the compound where Osama was thought to be hiding.

Afridi further confessed to having assisted the CIA in the final confirmation of Bin Laden's Abbottabad hideout by speaking on the phone to the supposed owner of the compound, Arshad Khan alias Sheikh Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, who was the most trusted courier for the slain al-Qaeda chief.

Using satellite photos and voice recordings, the CIA had sought to identify the inhabitants of the fortified compound. Samples of Kuwaiti's voice, which were taken by Afridi, provided the final confirmation to the CIA that the man seen by their drones inside the compound was none other than Bin Laden.

Kuwaiti, a Kuwait-born Pakistani al-Qaeda member, was also killed in the SEAL raid.

Afridi has reportedly told his Pakistani interrogators that he was introduced to the CIA by the United Kingdom-based humanitarian organization Save the Children, an internationally acclaimed non-governmental organization that promotes children's rights and helps support children in developing countries.

Save the Children has refuted Afridi's claim, saying the allegation has had a negative impact on its ability to operate inside Pakistan.

United States Defense Secretary Leon Panetta confirmed in January that Afridi had been working for the Americans and had provided information to the CIA about the al-Qaeda chief.

Afridi disappeared soon after Osama was killed and his body dumped from a helicopter into the sea, but he was arrested by Pakistani security agencies from the Torkham border on May 22 while trying to cross into Afghanistan, 20 days after Bin Laden's death.

A high-level judicial commission set up by the Pakistan government to probe the May 2 raid subsequently declared Afridi a "national criminal" and recommended to the government to try him on treason charges. These carry the death penalty.

Led by Justice Javed Iqbal of the Supreme Court, the four-member commission was constituted by the government in light of a resolution passed unanimously by a joint session of parliament on May 13, 2011. The commission was tasked with probing the covert American raid in which Bin Laden was shot dead along with his son and two aides.

Appearing before the commission, Afridi confessed to having set up a fake polio vaccination campaign to track down Bin Laden. The commission then directed the government not to hand over Afridi to the United States and to proceed against him on treason charges.

Afridi, in his late forties and the father of three children, is learnt to have informed his interrogators that he once treated wounded Taliban leaders, including the amir of the Khyber Agency-based Lashkar-e-Islami (LeI), commander Mangal Bagh.

What turned him against the Taliban was his 2007 abduction by the henchmen of Mangal Bagh, who thrashed him for charging huge fees from some of the wounded militants. Afridi was kept by the LeI militants for several weeks and released after his family paid a heavy ransom. Since his wife, Imrana Ghafoor (who was headmistress at a government-run girls' high school) was an American national, Afridi left for the United States along with his family in 2008.

Afridi returned to Pakistan a few months later, but his family stayed in the US. During 2009-2010, Afridi met with American officials in Islamabad and Peshawar many times and agreed to become a CIA mole. The Americans reportedly asked him to spy for them in the Mansehra, Hassan Abdal and Kamrah areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa under cover of an anti-polio campaign.

In the beginning of 2011, Afridi managed to collect blood samples from Bin Laden's compound. On April 28, these samples were reportedly matched through DNA tests from an American laboratory in Washington. Four days later, on May 2, the special forces conducted their clandestine raid.

Afridi's continued presence in Pakistani custody has clearly become a thorn in the already tense Pakistan-US relationship. Pakistan has turned down two separate requests made by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, seeking freedom for the doctor and his extradition to the US.

While their "requests" were clearly aimed at exerting pressure on Pakistan to release Afridi, well-informed sources in the Pakistani security establishment have ruled out any such possibility, saying Afridi will be tried in accordance with the directives of the judicial commission.

Following Pakistan's refusal, a group of US congressmen went to the extent of introducing legislation in the House of Representatives in February, seeking American citizenship for Afridi in recognition of his services.

"I have introduced legislation to grant American citizenship to Dr Shakeel Afridi, the Pakistan doctor who risked his life to identify Bin Laden and help the US military forces bring him to justice. If convicted, he could be executed," said Dana Rohrabacher. "My bill would grant him US citizenship and send a direct and powerful message to those in the Pakistan government and military who protected the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks for all those years and who are now seeking retribution on those who helped to execute bin Laden."

As if seeking American citizenship for the detained physician was not enough to tease Pakistan's security establishment, Rohrabacher announced on February 14 that he would introduce legislation in congress seeking a Congressional Gold Medal for Afridi.

In a statement from his Washington office, Rohrabacher, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs sub-committee on Oversight and Investigation, said, "Dr Shakeel Afridi's acts to help the US were extremely valiant and daring. All Americans owe him our most sincere gratitude for helping to execute the terrorist who murdered thousands of innocent Americans. Awarding Dr Afridi a Congressional Gold Medal is a great honor befitting a hero who took such great risks to help the United States achieve a major victory."

In a press release issued by Rohrabacher's office on March 1, he asked President Barack Obama to "personally intercede" in the case of Afridi in view of media reports that the Pakistan government had seized all his immovable assets.

"The Pakistani leaders continue to show the United States that they are a hardcore, two-faced enemy not worthy of the $2.2 billion in foreign assistance the Obama administration plans to give them next year. After Bin Laden murdered 3,000 people in New York City, the Pakistani government protected him for years and now they want to punish the man who helped reveal where he was living."

Nevertheless, 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 unearth the recruitment network of the Americans in Pakistan.

As things stand, it is not yet clear whether the doctor will be tried under Article 6 of the constitution (on treason charges) or whether he will be prosecuted for indulging in espionage activities for a foreign intelligence agency.

In reaction to the frequent demands being made by US government officials and parliamentarians for the release of Afridi, the Pakistani Foreign Office has maintained that the doctor is being dealt with according to the country's laws and Pakistan expects other countries, especially the United States, to respect its legal process by refraining from making baseless insinuations and drawing premature conclusions.

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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