He helped lead the U.S. to Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad. Ever since, Dr. Shakil Afridi has been held in a remote Pakistani prison, serving a 33-year sentence–ironically–for terrorism, trapped inside a legal system designed to keep him there.
This week, on April 25, Dr. Afridi’s appeal must start anew, as a new presiding officer takes the case. And his family is appealing to President Barack Obama for help.
“Pakistan cannot release him without American pressure,” said one relative, speaking to Breitbart News from northern Pakistan.
Shortly after the May 2, 2011 raid on bin Laden’s compound, it emerged that Dr. Afridi had assisted U.S. intelligence services in their efforts to determine whether the Al Qaeda leader was in fact there.
Dr. Afridi operated a hepatitis B vaccination program through which he reportedly attempted to obtain DNA samples of individuals at the compound that could have been compared to bin Laden family DNA already on file. His role was dramatized in the recent Oscar-winning film about the bin Laden raid, Zero Dark Thirty.
Pakistani authorities arrested Dr. Afridi and tried him under the arcane laws of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), a geographic region close to the border with Afghanistan. FATA is still governed through a system established by British colonial authorities a century ago, with a separate “tribal” judicial process–a process Pakistan’s reformist lawyers have been struggling to replace by amending Pakistan’s constitution.
In the FATA tribal court, the prosecutor and judge are the same official, the Assistant Political Adviser (APA). The APA must act in consultation with the members of a jirga, or tribal elders, and cannot impose a sentence of more than seven years.
Yet not only was Dr. Afridi sentenced for nearly five times that length, but he was also prosecuted for belonging to a terror organization, Lashkar-e-Islam, that had once kidnapped him, according to legal filings in the case.
Dr. Afridi was not even present for his trial; the government did not present any evidence, and no defense lawyer was permitted to appear for him.
The use of the tribal system enabled Pakistan to punish Dr. Afridi without exposing its own security failures in the bin Laden raid–and also its ongoing intelligence cooperation with the U.S., as well as the mystery of how bin Laden was permitted to live under the effective protection of Pakistani authorities.
In an interview with CBS News’ 60 Minutes in January 2012, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta provided the first public acknowledgment of Dr. Afridi’s role in the search for bin Laden, and expressed concern that Dr. Afridi had been accused of treason.
“This was an individual who, in fact, helped provide intelligence that was very helpful with regards to this operation,” Panetta said, “and he was not in any way treasonous towards Pakistan.” Panetta declined to call for Dr. Afridi’s immediate freedom, but added that “ultimately, he ought to be released.”
In May 2012, after Dr. Afridi was formally sentenced, then- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called his punishment “unjust and unwarranted.” The Senate Appropriations Committee voted unanimously to cut foreign aid to Pakistan by $33 million–a small but symbolic amount, $1 million for every year of Dr. Afridi’s imprisonment.
Meanwhile, Dr. Afridi’s lawyers began an appeals process, which in the FATA system means appearing before the commissioner of Peshawar, the senior administrative officer in the area. That officer may then allow the case to be considered by a three-judge panel known as a FATA tribunal.
The entire system is an administrative one; neither the APA, nor the commissioner, nor the members of the FATA tribunal need have legal training. Effectively, the system reports to Pakistan’s president, not its judiciary.
Though Dr. Afridi began his appeal nearly a year ago, it became mired in bureaucratic delays. The appointment of a new commissioner of Peshawar means that the appeal will begin anew when that commissioner presides for the first time on Thursday, April 25.
Dr. Afridi’s family is convinced that the Pakistani government, judiciary and intelligence services will never allow the conviction to be overturned. Yet they hope that the start of a new appeal process will bring a new opportunity for the Obama administration to intervene.
Speaking exclusively by telephone to Breitbart News, a close relative of Dr. Afridi appealed to President Obama to intercede directly with the Pakistani government to secure Dr. Afridi’s freedom:
President Obama should help us and release [Dr. Afridi] because he has done [sic] a large, big, most wanted terrorist in the world. Dr. Shakil helped the American government and they achieved their target. And the American government and Mr. Obama should pressurize the Pakistani government…
I appeal from [sic] Obama and the American government to release [him] and help us. Without American involvement and without American pressure, the Pakistani government can’t release [him].
Meanwhile, according to the relative, Dr. Afridi’s family lives in fear. “I can’t be secure here, my family can’t be secure here in Pakistan,” he said. “There are many Taliban…we are all afraid.” Afridi’s wife and children are still in Pakistan, though she had–even prior to the raid–attempted to emigrate to the U.S., the relative said.
The Obama administration’s failure, thus far, to secure Dr. Afridi’s release may discourage future informants from assisting U.S. intelligence in obtaining information in the future–a need that remains acute in the wake of the Boston Marathon attacks, which were carried out despite warnings to U.S. authorities.
Last week. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) pressed Secretary of State John Kerry about Dr. Afridi’s case during testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, protesting that the U.S. continued to provide aid “to a government that is holding, in prison, the doctor who helped us bring to justice Osama bin Laden.” Calling Dr. Afridi “an American hero,” Rep. Rohrabacher said the U.S. ought to be ashamed for abandoning him.
Secretary Kerry responded: “We’re not ignoring Dr. Afridi at all, believe me. We–this discussion–we have, and it goes on, and it’s just not as simple as holding everything accountable to one thing, where they, they assert that there were certain laws that were broken–you know the arguments–that complicates it.”
Rep. Rohrabacher has introduced a resolution, H. Res. 86, in support of Dr. Afridi. Thus far, it has sixteen co-sponsors from both parties.
Outside of Congress, efforts have begun to organize public support for Dr. Afridi’s freedom. Robert Lorsch, a Los Angeles-based philanthropist and CEO of MMRGlobal, has launched a website, www.freeafridi.com, aimed at providing information about Dr. Afridi and directing visitors to a petition to direct the White House to act on his behalf.
“If your family had someone in the military or foreign service and this is how we treat them,” Lorsch says, “who will help America next time?”
In Pakistan, Dr. Afridi’s case has lent additional momentum to a budding movement for legal reform. On Saturday, April 27, lawyers who work in FATA are organizing a “rule of law” convention at the Peshawar High Court aimed at placing the territory within the main Pakistani judicial system. The conference includes international experts and the Chief Justice of the Peshawar High Court as invited guests.
The second anniversary of the bin Laden mission will fall exactly one week after Dr. Afridi’s renewed appeal.
Jon David Kahn contributed to this report.