33 Years In Prison For Pakistani Doctor Who Aided Hunt For Bin Laden

May 23, 2012
Originally published on May 23, 2012 7:22 pm

Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani doctor who helped in the hunt for Osama bin Laden by trying to collect DNA from the al-Qaida leader and his family members, has been convicted of treason and sentenced to 33 years in prison, according to reports from Pakistan.

Pakistan's Dawn newspaper quotes Mohammad Siddiq, a spokesman for the tribal justice system in the Khyber district, as saying Afridi "has been sentenced for 33 years on treason charges and has been moved to Peshawar central jail after the verdict was announced by the local court."

The Associated Press writes that another local official, Nasir Khan, said Afridi was also fined about $3,500.

As Saeed Shah, a reporter for McClatchy Newspapers explained on All Things Considered earlier this year, Afridi was:

"Recruited by the CIA in order to help them establish whether or not Osama bin Laden was living in this suspicious compound, in a town called Abbottabad.

"And his job was to somehow get some DNA samples from those living in the house — not necessarily those of Osama bin Laden, although that would've been the ultimate jackpot, but of some of his family members. ...

"So he set of the vaccination program in Abbottabad for hepatitis B. And they rang the bell, and Shakeel Afridi waited outside. He managed to get a nurse inside the house — who administered some of these vaccinations, we think, and tried to get some DNA samples. In the end, we believe the effort was unsuccessful."

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, on CBS-TV's 60 Minutes in January, confirmed that Afridi tried to assist the U.S. in the search for bin Laden — and Panetta made the case that the doctor's actions were not treasonous.

Bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, was raided by U.S. Navy SEALs in an operation that began on May 1, 2011 and concluded with the al-Qaida leader's death in the pre-dawn hours of the next morning (local time).

Update at 3:30 p.m. ET. No Basic Due Process:

"The verdict against Afridi," NPR's Julie McCarthy reports from Islamabad, "was handed down by a government official in consultation with a council of elders in the Khyber tribal district, where the 48-year-old doctor was arrested in the weeks following bin Laden's killing."

Julie continues:

"British-era crime regulations there do not carry the death penalty for treason. But nor do they meet basic standards of due process, according to critics, because there is no requirement for an actual trial. Tagged a traitor and detained in secret, Afridi was accused of running a vaccine program at the behest of the CIA, a ruse to pinpoint bin Laden at a compound in the town of Abbottabad.

"The verdict comes at a delicate time in US-Pakistan relations. Patience with Pakistan according to a U.S. official is already 'threadbare' over its failure to reopen NATO supply lines. The U.S. has said Afridi's help in locating al-Qaida terrorists was anything but 'treasonous.'

"On Capitol Hill, two of the Senate's leading voices on national security, Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan and Republican John McCain of Arizona, issued a stern warning, calling for Afridi's release and pardon and saying that his '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.' "

Update at 10:30 a.m. ET. Guilty Before Trial:

"So angered was Pakistan about Afridi's activities," NPR's Julie McCarthy writes to us from Islamabad, "that even before completing its report into the Bin Affairs, a special Abbottabad Commission declared him guilty of treason."

Julie adds that "critics of the handling of the case against Afridi include Qazi Anwar, former president the Supreme Court Bar Association. Anwar says the doctor was deprived of a fair trial and that his fate was instead left to a political agent and a jirga in the Khyber Agency, where Afridi had lived and where he was found guilty. The assistant political agent of Khyber Agency, Nasir Khan sentenced Afridi, as jirgas according to Anwar do not have that power.

"The 48 year old doctor has been taken to the Central jail in the Northwest City of Peshawar to serve out his term."

Update at 9:15 a.m. ET. From Julie McCarthy In Islamabad.

NPR's Julie McCarthy tells our Newscast Desk that:

"The case embodies the tensions between Pakistan and the United States.

"A physician, Afridi ran polio vaccinations in the tribal area. He was recruited by the CIA to set up phony vaccination program aimed at identifying bin Laden by gathering samples from the inhabitants inside Bin Laden's compound in the military town of Abbottabad. The extracted DNA evidence would prove Bin Laden was there. The plot failed, but Pakistan captured Afridi, and kept him in secret detention during the proceedings that found him guilty.

"The U.S. has urged freedom for a man the Americans consider an asset, but Pakistan considers a traitor and its intelligence community believed an example needed to be set."

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In Pakistan, a tribal court has handed down a 33-year prison sentence to a doctor who helped the CIA search for Osama bin Laden. Dr. Shakil Afridi set up a fake vaccination program that allowed him to go door to door in Abbottabad. That's where Navy SEALs eventually found, and killed, the al-Qaida leader. Afridi wasn't able to get the DNA samples he was looking for, but Pakistan and U.S. officials say his work aided the search.

He was convicted of treason, though the U.S. State Department says there's no basis for the charges. Chris Brummitt is the AP bureau chief in Pakistan. He's based in Islamabad, and he's been following the case. And Chris, to start, tell us more about this tribal court where Dr. Afridi was tried.

CHRIS BRUMMITT: Well, it's based in the Khyber region, close to the Afghan border. The legal system there is distinct from the rest of Pakistan. It's a holdover from the British colonial era. I mean, essentially, there are no juries or judges. The verdict today was handed down by a government official, in consultation with various tribesmen up there. As I say, it's a holdover from the British colonial time, and it's being criticized by human rights groups for basically, being unfair.

CORNISH: At the same time, I was reading that the penalty for treason, say, in Pakistan's federal court system could have been the death penalty. And what to make of the fact that this wasn't tried in Pakistan's federal court system?

BRUMMITT: That's right. The tribal courts do not allow for the death penalty whereas - as you point out - in federal courts, he may well have gotten the death penalty for treason. So, I mean, I have - heard different versions of this. I think it's easier to get a conviction, perhaps, in the tribal courts. So that could be one reason. Another reason could be, I suppose, that they wanted to avoid giving the guy the death penalty for some - I don't know, some reason, to sort of limit the damage in relations with America.

CORNISH: As a result, what's been the response from the public in Pakistan?

BRUMMITT: Well, on Twitter - people have taken to Twitter and they've been - you know, some think that this guy was a traitor for collaborating with the Americans. In fact, I've seen some commentaries that said he should've got the death penalty. Whereas others, I suppose you'd call them more liberal Pakistanis, point out perhaps the absurdity of this verdict in that Shakil Afridi was not conspiring against the state. Bin Laden was an enemy of Pakistan, too. They think he should have been released long ago and never even held in custody, actually.

CORNISH: We've heard from the U.S. State Department today, but what other action has the U.S. taken to help Dr. Afridi?

BRUMMITT: Well, ever since it became public knowledge that he'd been arrested and in fact there was this CIA-led operation, a vaccination scheme to try and get bin Laden's DNA - I mean, they've privately and publicly been calling on Pakistan to release Afridi. But I'm not sure what they can do moving forward, given the perilous state of relations between Pakistan and the United States. I think if relations improve, then down the line, one could see - perhaps - Afridi being pardoned.

CORNISH: Can you put this in context for us, in terms of - is Dr. Afridi's case just kind of a minor blip in what is just a great, big, nation-to-nation discussion?

BRUMMITT: Yeah. I think within the context of Pakistan and the United States, it's probably not the major issue. The major issue is Pakistan's support for the Afghan Taliban - alleged support - and U.S. demands on Pakistan to reopen these blocked supply routes. But I think it's just become a symbol of really, the gulf between the two countries.

In America, he's considered a hero. Here, he's considered a traitor. And I think it's striking that Pakistan has not arrested anyone for harboring bin Laden but today, they sentenced someone to 33 years in jail for helping authorities find bin Laden. So I think if you're an American critic of Pakistan, this has tremendous resonance - I would suggest; you know. And if you want to paint Pakistan as no longer a friend, then something like this is more fuel to this argument, you know, of disengagement with Pakistan.

CORNISH: Well, Chris, thank you for talking with us.

BRUMMITT: It's my pleasure.

CORNISH: Chris Brummitt is the AP bureau chief in Pakistan. He spoke to us about the conviction of Dr. Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani doctor convicted for his role in helping the U.S. in the search for Osama bin Laden. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.