A Pakistani doctor who helped the U.S. track down Osama bin Laden was found guilty of treason and sentenced to 33 years in jail.
A court in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal region yesterday convicted the doctor, Shakil Afridi, said Kifayatullah Durrani, a government spokesman in Peshawar. Afridi was charged with running a fake vaccination program in Abbottabad, the Pakistani town where bin Laden hid for as long as five years, to obtain a DNA sample from those living in the compound where the al-Qaeda leader was shot dead by Navy SEALs last May.
While Afridi can appeal, the sentence may further strain ties between Pakistan and the Obama administration, which has called for Afridi to be freed and allowed to live in the U.S. The two sides have yet to resolve a stalemate over closed supply routes into Afghanistan needed to supply NATO forces as they wind down their combat role by 2014.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told CBS’s “60 Minutes” program in January that the intelligence provided by the doctor had been “very helpful with regards to this operation. And he was not in any way treasonous towards Pakistan.”
“Dr. Afridi’s continuing imprisonment and treatment as a criminal will only do further harm to U.S.-Pakistani relations, including diminishing Congress’s willingness to provide financial assistance to Pakistan,” Arizona Republican Senator John McCain and Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan said in a statement yesterday.
Levin is the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which has a voice on U.S. military aid and cooperation with Pakistan, and McCain is the panel’s top Republican.
The U.S. sees “no basis” for holding Afridi and has taken up the issue regularly with the Pakistani government, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a briefing for reporters yesterday.
Pakistan’s army and intelligence agencies were humiliated by the nighttime U.S. strike that killed bin Laden, an airborne attack they failed to detect, after denying for years that senior al-Qaeda leaders were hiding in the country.
A Pakistani commission probing the U.S. raid recommended in October that treason charges be brought against Afridi. The panel, headed by a Supreme Court judge, didn’t specify evidence it had gathered against the doctor.
The international medical charity, Doctors Without Borders, in July criticized the U.S. government’s “alleged fake CIA vaccination campaign” undertaken in a clandestine effort to confirm bin Laden’s location. Such activities, the group said, undermined legitimate health outreach efforts and endangered health workers around the world.
Pakistan relations with the U.S. further soured last year amid allegations by American officials that the Pakistani government is aiding guerrilla attacks in Afghanistan, and a November border strike by U.S. helicopters that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
In the wake of the attack along the frontier, Pakistan closed routes for trucks supplying North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops in Afghanistan, which negotiations so far have failed to reopen.