Dismissed as a traitor in Pakistan, but lauded as a hero by the US, Shakeel Afridi is paying a heavy price for his role in bringing an end to Osama bin Laden.
A decade after the al-Qaeda leader was gunned down by a team of US Navy Seals, there is no sign that the doctor will be exonerated by Pakistani authorities for helping the CIA pinpoint bin Laden’s location under the cloak of running a vaccination program.
Locked up in solitary confinement in Sahiwal Jail in Pakistan’s Punjab Province, Afridi now spends his time counting the days — with nothing to differentiate between them.
“He is being kept in prison now only to teach every Pakistani a lesson not to cooperate with a Western intelligence agency,” said Husain Haqqani, who was serving as Pakistani ambassador to the US at the time of the raid. “Instead of coming clean on bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan, the authorities have made Dr Afridi a scapegoat.”
Reporters pieced together the daily routine of the doctor through interviews with his brother, Jamil Afridi, and lawyer, as Shakeel Afridi is barred from speaking to anyone apart from his family or legal team.
For exercise, he paces around his 2.1m by 2.4m cell and does occasional push-ups, his family said.
He has a copy of the Koran, but is not allowed other books.
A couple of times a week he shaves in the presence of a guard, but contact with other inmates is also strictly prohibited.
Family members can visit just twice a month, but are separated by an iron grate and forbidden from conversing in their native Pashto tongue.
“The prison authorities have told us that we can’t discuss politics or talk about the situation inside the jail,” his brother said.
Hailing from Pakistan’s rugged tribal areas, the physician appeared to be an ideal asset for the CIA as the spy agency zeroed in on bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad.
All the agency needed was a bit of proof that bin Laden was there, so they had Shakeel Afridi launch a vaccine campaign with the aim of extracting a DNA sample from inside his compound.
Just how instrumental Shakeel Afridi was in identifying the former leader of al-Qaeda is unclear, but the doctor was arrested by authorities weeks after the deadly assault on bin Laden’s home.
He was never found guilty of anything linked to the raid, but convicted by a tribal court under an obscure colonial-era law of providing money to an insurgent group and handed a 33-year sentence.
Successive US administrations have protested against his continued imprisonment and over the years there has been talk of a prisoner exchange, but a deal to free Shakeel Afridi has never materialized.
“Let’s be clear: [Shakeel] Afridi has paid the highest price,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy South Asia director at the Wilson Center in Washington. “He became the fall guy.”
Few are sympathetic to Shakeel Afridi’s ongoing plight in Pakistan, where the bin Laden raid fanned anti-US sentiment after years of simmering distrust between the uneasy allies.
“Whenever someone works for a foreign intelligence agency, it’s one of the most unforgivable crimes,” former Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence director-general Asad Durrani told reporters, adding that the doctor’s arrest probably saved him from being lynched.
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