A decade has passed since U.S. Special Forces killed Osama bin Laden in a raid on a home in Abbottabad, Pakistan. But there is no indication that the doctor who helped the CIA find the Al Qaeda leader will soon be released by the Pakistani authorities.
Shakil Afridi is isolated in Sahiwal prison in Punjab province. There he counts the days, without really being able to tell them apart.
“Now he is being held in prison until all Pakistanis learn not to cooperate with Western intelligence,” said Hussain Haqqani, who was Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington ten years ago.
Instead of acknowledging the circumstances surrounding bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan, the authorities made Afridi a scapegoat.
Isolate the liver
With the help of the brother of the doctor and the lawyer, Agence France-Presse has collected a photo of Afridi in prison. He may not speak to anyone other than his family and legal representatives.
To exercise, Afridi moves around his cell which is about 2 times the size of 2.5 meters and sometimes does some push-ups. He has a copy of the Qur’an but he is not permitted to read any other books. He is allowed to shave twice a week with a guard, but contact with other prisoners is strictly prohibited.
Family members are allowed to visit twice a month. But the visit takes place behind bars and they are not allowed to speak their native Pashto language.
– The prison authorities told us that we should not discuss politics or talk about the situation in prison, says Dr. Jamil Afridi’s brother.
– He may not use a mobile phone or read a newspaper or book. He lives in isolation.
Vaccination as a cover
The doctor was seen as a quintessential CIA asset when the spy agency opened its eyes to the whereabouts of the suspected bin Laden in Abbottabad. The Americans needed proof that bin Laden was indeed at home, so they asked Afridi to launch a vaccination campaign in the hope that he would get a DNA sample.
The extent to which Afridi helped identify the Al Qaeda leader is unclear. But the authorities arrested the doctor a few weeks after the fatal raid.
Afridi was never found guilty of anything related to the attack but was sentenced to 33 years in prison for treason and his association with an armed group. Later, the sentence was reduced to ten years, but he ran into problems with legal aid and delayed an appeal.
Several US governments protested that Afridi was still being held. A prisoner exchange was discussed, but no agreement was ever reached for his release.
Michael Kugelmann, deputy director of South Asia at the Wilson Center for Research, says Afridi paid the highest price.
The (American) withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the deteriorating relations with Pakistan that may ensue, indicate that the Afridi issue will not be as hot as it was before.
And in Pakistan, the doctor’s position does not arouse much sympathy.
– Asad Durrani, the former head of the Pakistani spy agency, says that working for a foreign intelligence service is one of the most unforgivable crimes.
August 2010: After years of polling against a highly trusted courier affiliated with Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden is linked to a house in Abbottabad, northeast of Islamabad, Pakistan. The intelligence service states that it may contain a “prominent terrorist”.
February 2011: US President Barack Obama deemed the data credible enough to begin planning a crackdown.
Spring 2011: Pakistani doctor Shakeel Afridi was able to take blood samples from home residents on behalf of the CIA, with a hepatitis B vaccination program as a cover.
April 29, 2011: Obama orders the raid, according to some sources, after “photographic evidence” of bin Laden’s presence.
May 2 (Pakistani time): US helicopters from Afghanistan land in Abbottabad and a special force is attacking the house. After 45 minutes, they left again, carrying bin Laden’s body.
May 2, 8:30 PM (Pakistan time): Obama confirms in a televised address the terrorist leader has been killed.