The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar.
It wasn’t major news when Dr Shakeel Afridi was arrested on May 23, 2011 in Peshawar because much later his value to the United States became known when its officials started criticising his arrest. Dr Afridi was driving home to Peshawar’s posh Hayatabad town from Khyber Agency, where he served as the head of the health department, when personnel of Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency got hold of him at the Karkhano Market famous for smuggled foreign goods. As happens in such cases, he was taken to a secret destination never to be seen and heard as long as his powerful captors wished.
Dr Afridi’s whereabouts were unknown for exactly a year until May 23, 2012 when he was shifted to the Peshawar Central Prison after his conviction in the court of Assistant Political Agent and Additional District Magistrate Nasir Khan, of Bara subdivision in Khyber Agency on four counts of anti-state activities for providing financial and medical assistance to the proscribed Lashkar-i-Islam militant group. Belonging to the Malikdinkhel Afridi tribe in Bara, he was jailed for 33 years and fined Rs320, 000 on the basis of a crime committed in the tribal areas. His address of detention is now known and the treason charges against him have been made public.
However, he may not remain for long at the Peshawar Central Prison as it is considered vulnerable in terms of its security. The ANP-PPP coalition government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, embarrassed and still smarting from the biggest jailbreak in Pakistan’s history when 384 prisoners escaped from the new prison in Bannu on April 15 following an attack by Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militants, is uncomfortable keeping Dr Afridi at the Peshawar Central Prison or any other prison in the province due to a host of reasons. It has already requested the federal government to shift him out of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The provincial government fears he could be killed by the militants being held at the Peshawar Central Prison or poisoned. Government officials have also expressed concern that the Americans could attempt a clandestine operation to free him. This is interesting because many Pakistanis have started believing after the May 2, 2011 raid by the US Special Forces in Abbottabad in which Osama bin Laden was killed that the Americans would stop at nothing to launch unilateral attacks in Pakistan to achieve their objectives. Liberating Dr Afridi would earn popularity in the year of the presidential election for President Barack Obama in the US just like the Abbottabad raid because the Pakistani doctor has been made into a hero by the American officials and media.
However, the idea of a raid by US commandoes on a Pakistani prison to snatch Dr Afridi looks far-fetched. No such raid was made to free Raymond Davis, who was allegedly a CIA man disguised as a diplomat unlike Dr Afridi who reportedly was a small-time CIA informer. If the US could secure release of Raymond Davis by paying blood-money under Islamic law with help from the ISI to the families of the two young Pakistanis killed by him in broad daylight on the streets of Lahore, it could also find a way to win freedom for Dr Afridi without having to resort to the use of force. The unrelenting pressure being applied by the US officials on Pakistan in Dr Afridi’s case and the use of American aid-money to tempt and unnerve the Pakistani authorities could eventually have an impact even though Islamabad right now is acting brave and refusing to be cowed down.
Angry US senators have denounced Pakistan for punishing someone who had helped track down the world’s most wanted man and have recommended cutting aid to it by $33 million, one million for each year of the sentence awarded to Dr Afridi.
The unusually tough US stand on the issue has emboldened members of Dr Afridi’s family and some of his supporters to openly speak in his defence. His brother Jamil Afridi, a schoolteacher, held a press conference in Peshawar to pronounce Dr Afridi as innocent. One of his arguments pleading his brother’s innocence was that Dr Afridi could have fled Pakistan as he had a valid US visa. A counter-argument could be made that the Pakistani intelligence agents gave him little time to escape. It is also possible that Dr Afridi, bold in his dealings as his service record shows because he managed to get himself reinstated after being dismissed from service in the health department on December 24, 1999 and fought off charges of misconduct and corruption, didn’t suspect that his role in tracking down Bin Laden through his fake anti-polio vaccination campaign in Abbottabad would become known and lead to his arrest.
One look at documents dating back to 2002 portray the picture of a man who repeatedly fell foul of the law and still managed to hold on to his job and his position. Enquiries conducted against him at the time found him guilty of corruption and misuse of power. He was declared corrupt, unreliable and unfit for government service. Nurses working under him accused him of sexual assault and his bosses reported that he stole medical equipment from the government hospital and was obsessed with making money. There are also reports that he bribed his superiors to retain his job in Khyber Agency.
Obviously, he and his family would deny all this and these reports would not have been leaked if Dr Afridi hadn’t landed himself in trouble by associating with the CIA.
There is no doubt that he worked for the CIA because the US government functionaries would not have been making so much noise after his conviction if he wasn’t an informer and hadn’t helped the US in confirming the presence of America’s public enemy number one in Abbottabad. There are published media reports that Dr Afridi, along with his wife Imrana Ghafoor, who hailed from Attock district and served as principal of a girls’ college in Mohmand Agency, along with their three children visited the US in 2009. Some of Dr Afridi’s colleagues claimed that he began visiting the US embassy in Islamabad in 2008 and started taking unusual interest in the activities of the militants. Pakistanis who are defending him for playing a role in getting Bin Laden need to know that Dr Afridi wasn’t doing this for a higher cause in the fight against terrorism. Rather, as available evidence shows, he did this for money, that too far less than was his due.
The judgment given by the assistant political agent, Bara against Dr Afridi doesn’t touch the charges of his involvement in activities linking him to the CIA. It briefly refers to it by pointing out that the joint investigation team (JIT), which normally includes officials of the ISI, military intelligence and the intelligence bureau, did obtain evidence to this effect but this wasn’t taken into account while awarding him punishment due to lack of jurisdiction. This obviously meant that this evidence pertained to the Abbottabad incident, which was beyond the jurisdiction of the court of the assistant political agent, Bara. He recommended that the accused may be produced before the relevant court for further proceedings under the law. Thus Dr Afridi could be separately tried by another court possibly in Abbottabad on charges of spying for a foreign intelligence agency and running the fake vaccination campaign.
Presently, Dr Afridi’s conviction and imprisonment for 33 years under provisions of the Frontier Crimes Regulations is due to his alleged links with the Mangal Bagh-led Lashkar-i-Islam. The security forces have launched at least five operations against this banned group in Bara and Tirah valley in Khyber Agency.
Ironically, Mangal Bagh had fined Dr Afridi one million rupees in 2008 after getting him abducted following complaints by patients that he performed faulty surgeries on them in his private hospital in Bara without possessing the required qualification to do so. This case could yet take many twists and turns and further strain US-Pakistan ties because Washington refuses to give up its habit of bullying Islamabad into submission after every new crisis in their strained relationship.