Five years after his fake vaccination program helped the CIA track and kill Osama bin Laden, Pakistani doctor Shakeel Afridi languishes in jail, abandoned by the US, say supporters, in its bid to smooth troubled relations with Islamabad.
Afridi, believed to be in his mid-50s, has no access to a lawyer, and his appeal against a 23-year prison sentence has stalled.
“I have no hope of meeting him, no expectation for justice,” his elder brother Jamil said.
The former surgeon lives in solitary confinement in a small room, according to his lawyer, able to see his immediate family no more than six times a year.
Afridi’s role in one of the most famous assassinations of recent decades is murky.
Details of how he was sought out by the CIA are unclear — Pakistani reports suggest officials at Save the Children acted as go-betweens, though the charity denies involvement.
What is known is that Afridi’s job was to run a fake hepatitis C vaccination program with the aim of obtaining genetic samples from Abbottabad, a garrison city and home to the Pakistan Military Academy.
It was there that al-Qaeda chief bin Laden and his family had set up home in the mid-2000s, under the noses — and some say protection — of senior Pakistani military officers.
In the darkness of May 2, 2011, two helicopters full of elite US Navy Seals touched down inside the compound.
In a dramatic raid just 1km from the military academy, they fought their way in and surprised the terror mastermind.
They shot him in the head and fled with his body, abandoning a damaged Black Hawk helicopter.
The killing was a huge success for US President Barack Obama.
It decapitated al-Qaeda, badly hampering the organization’s ability to carry out further atrocities.
However, it drove a wedge between Islamabad and Washington, with lingering suspicions that the Pakistanis had for years been covering up the whereabouts of one the world’s most wanted men.
Weeks after the raid, Afridi was arrested and thrown in jail, accused of having ties to militants, a charge he has always denied.
Commentators believe Pakistan opted to punish Afridi in this way, rather than try him for treason — aiding a foreign power — because that would have entailed a public trial that would thrown a spotlight on Islamabad’s role in harboring bin Laden.
A furious US Senate committee voted to cut aid to Islamabad by US$33 million — US$1 million for each year of his original sentence.
The sentence was later cut by 10 years, but since then, US pressure for Afridi’s release has tapered off, and analysts say Washington has dropped the issue, preferring to concentrate on what its sees as more pressing matters — such as negotiating with Islamist extremists in Afghanistan.
“The Taliban talks have taken priority over everything. The Americans don’t want to muddy the water by raising other issues that are contentious,” Pakistani author and security expert Ahmed Rashid said.
Qamar Nadeem, Afridi’s lawyer who has been denied access to him for the past two years, believes his client’s best hope for early release is US pressure.
“But so far they have not shown their support,” he said.
Afridi is allowed to see his wife and children every two months or so, according to Nadeem, but an appeal against his sentence that began in 2014 is bogged down in adjournments and an uncooperative government.
Though Jamil and Afridi’s other siblings won a Peshawar High Court decision granting them visiting rights, that verdict has not been implemented, and Jamil has been told by his lawyer that pursuing the matter could result in harm to the doctor.
“They are not admitting the High Court decision. What can I say? I am pessimistic,” he said.
Rashid says justice for Afridi has gone by the wayside for the US, which would rather Pakistan use its influence with the Afghan Taliban to encourage them to restart peace talks with Kabul.
“The Americans have ceased to criticize Pakistan on many fronts,” he said.
However, Michael Kugelman, an analyst at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington said all hope is not lost for Afridi.
He said, rather than having abandoned him, the Americans may have decided that shouting about it is not going to work.
“In Washington the issue has likely moved off the front burner because it’s clear that Pakistan isn’t willing to play ball and negotiate an arrangement that could set him free,” he said.
“[But] the Afridi issue has never really gone away, and my sense is that US officials quietly press Pakistan about it from time to time,” Kugelman said.
OFF BORDER ISLAND: The fisheries official disappeared from a patrol vessel wearing a life jacket and leaving behind his shoes, indicating an intentional move, Seoul said North Korean soldiers shot dead a suspected South Korean defector at sea and burned his body as a COVID-19 precaution after he was interrogated in the water over several hours, Seoul military officials said yesterday. It is the first killing of a South Korean citizen by North Korean forces for a decade, and comes with Pyongyang at high alert over the COVID-19 pandemic and inter-Korean relations at a standstill. The fisheries official disappeared from a patrol vessel near the western border island of Yeonpyeong on Monday, the official said. More than 24 hours later, North Korean forces located him in their waters and
ACADEMIC FREEDOM: One professor told her students to submit anonymized papers and not to record any online classes. Some US schools have announced similar steps Students at Oxford University specializing in the study of China are being asked to submit some papers anonymously to protect them from the possibility of retribution under the sweeping new security law introduced three months ago in Hong Kong. The anonymity ruling is to be applied in classes, and group tutorials are to be replaced by one-to-ones. Students are also to be warned that it will be viewed as a disciplinary offence if they tape classes or share them with outside groups. The Hong Kong National Security Law was imposed on June 30 by Beijing after more than a year of pro-democracy
Japan’s government yesterday urged people to seek help if they were struggling to cope, following Sunday’s death of the popular actress and Miss Sherlock star Yuko Takeuchi, 40. News of her death shocked the nation and follows other recent cases of Japanese celebrities taking their lives, with figures showing a recent rise in suicides. Takeuchi was a household name in Japan and had given birth to her second child in January. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato did not mention a particular case, but said that some people were struggling to cope during the COVID-19 pandemic. “There has been an uptick in the number
The scarcity of commercial flights landing at Sydney Airport has been a disaster for airlines and workers, but for hobby pilots the COVID-19 pandemic has provided the opportunity of a lifetime. The quieter-than-usual runways mean that private pilots have been given the chance to land at the international airport for the first time. When Sydney Flight College club captain Tim Lindley put out a call, he received an overwhelming response. He eventually organized for 14 light aircraft to fly into Sydney airport on Sunday. “For a lot of the pilots involved, including myself, it was a childhood dream to land in a big