Osama Bin Laden Doctor Set For Retrial in Pakistan


Officials in Pakistan have overturned the jail sentence and ordered a retrial of a doctor who helped the CIA in their search for Osama bin Laden. Dr. Shakeel Afridi was charged with treason and tried under the tribal justice system, and was subsequently sentenced to 33 years in May 2012 at Peshawar Central Jail. At the time of his assistance to the CIA, Afridi had no idea who exactly the CIA was targeting.

Afridi was however not given the lengthy jail sentence due to his collusion with the CIA, but rather for alleged links to a banned local Islamist militant organization called Lashkar-i-Islam. Although this might have been the legal justification for his sentence it is obvious that his cooperation with the CIA was the decisive factor behind his trial and the sentence.

Judicial official Sahibzada Mohammad Anees ordered a new trial on the grounds that another official had exceeded his authority when handing down last year's sentence.

Although Afridi will be given a retrial, there is little hope that the same verdict will not be reached again. Afridi is the only Pakistani resident that has been arrested in the link to the Bin Laden raid. The Pakistani security agencies that took the bin Laden raid as a breach of their sovereignty and an insult to their own reputation and abilities will never let Afridi's sentence be substantially reduced, let alone allow him to walk free.

In the weeks running up to the assault by U.S. Navy SEALs on bin Laden's hideout, Afridi ran a bogus hepatitis B vaccination campaign for the CIA, designed to collect blood samples in the hope of finding people who matched the bin Laden family DNA. DNA from any of the bin Laden children or grandchildren in the compound could be compared with a sample from the Al-Qaeda leader's sister, who died in Boston in 2010, to provide evidence that the family was present. So agents approached Dr. Afridi, the health official in charge of Khyber, part of a tribal area that runs along the Afghan border close to Abbottabad. He agreed to help.

The Pakistani security forces have had an extremely uneasy relationship with the U.S. government since the raid, to say the least. The fact that they have been able to arrest only one local involved in the event further undermines Afridi's prospects of a reduced sentence. The security agencies in Pakistan call all major foreign policy and security-related shots. They have considerable leverage over the tribal court system and can easily use backroom channels to produce a similarly harsh verdict during the retrial.

The security agencies will also want to set a precedent for the future. By making sure Afridi gets a severe punishment for selling out to a foreign entity, the security agencies will be able to send out a warning to anyone else that might be approached for a similar task.

Although the U.S. is in a position to exert some pressure on the Pakistani government, the security establishment in Pakistan (as distinct from the civilian government) will not bow down to any such pressure. Angry U.S. senators at the time of Afridi's arrest withheld $33 million in aid from Pakistan in retaliation. Afridi was still given a lengthy hail sentence. Recent improvements in Pak-U.S. relations following John Kerry's visit, in which he reportedly brought up the Afridi issue, will also prove to be insufficient in getting Afridi off the hook.

Even Afridi's own lawyers have little hope of a reduction in Afridi’s sentence. "We do not have any expectations because whatever happens will be according to what the [security] agencies want," said Samiullah Afridi, Afridi's lawyer.

For now Afridi seems to be doomed.