Surprise, surprise: Dr Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani doctor thought to have been sentenced to 33 years in prison for helping the CIA track down Osama bin Laden was – according to the five-page verdict released by the court on Wednesday – actually convicted of conspiring with Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Islam (LeI). What’s more, the four-member tribal court that sentenced him has actually admitted in its order that it did not have the jurisdiction to prosecute Dr Afridi for treason for his alleged involvement with the CIA, and recommended that these charges be taken up by the relevant court instead.
What the tribal court has charged him with is providing Rs2 million to the banned militant group while serving at the Tehsil Headquarters Hospital, Dogra, in the Bara area and dispensing medical assistance there to several LeI commanders.
On its part, the United States has already cut $33 million in aid to Pakistan in reaction to Dr Afridi’s conviction. But after the tribal court’s verdict came out in full in the media, revealing that things may not be as simple as a case of Pakistan punishing someone for helping find Bin Laden, the US has out rightly refused to believe the latest turn of events: “We do not believe in this new story (on Dr Shakil Afridi),” a senior Obama administration official said, adding that the State Department had sought clarification from Pakistan on confusing signals coming from the country.
But in all fairness, while this case is certainly shrouded in mystery and Pakistan has a central role to play in clarifying it, some of the confusion seems to be emanating from the US side too. Indeed, one can’t help but think why – when the Dr Afridi story first came out and especially after he was sentenced – the US made such harsh statements about Pakistan and was so quick to cut off aid without having done its homework or even being privy to the detailed verdict of the tribal court.
Arguably, the timing of the sentence led to an automatic assumption by the United States that Dr Afridi was being punished for helping out the Americans, and that the decision to sentence him at a time of heightened tension between the two countries was a message of defiance from the political and security establishment in Pakistan.
Based on these assumptions, and without waiting for the fog of confusion to clear, folks in Washington – starting from lonely Congressmen and the defence secretary to the secretary of state herself – shot off fiery statements against Pakistan, pronouncing a guilty verdict on the country. This is a sure shot way to add to mistrust – that not only did the US make deeply intrusive statements about Pakistan’s internal affairs, it did so on the basis of biased and hastily-drawn assumptions.
Of course, none of this should distract from the fact that while it’s very rare to see a member of an outlawed group or terrorist organisation being tried or convicted in Pakistan, Dr Afridi has been given such a harsh sentence. Certainly, Pakistan too has some explaining to do and a long way to go in fighting terrorists and those who abet them in carrying out their nefarious designs.