Monday May 29, 2023

Pakistani polio workers under attack since 2012

By our correspondents
April 23, 2016

Just a month after Hafiz Gul Bahadur, the North Waziristan commander of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, had declared a "ban" on polio vaccination in the embattled agency until the United States ended its drone attacks, unidentified gunmen had fired at a World Health Organisation (WHO) vehicle in Karachi on July 17, 2012, injuring a Ghanaian doctor and his driver, research shows.

The doctor had been supporting polio eradication in Karachi's Gadap town, where the disease was endemic.

Hafiz Gul Bahadur, a signatory to a peace deal with the Pakistani military, had issued his decree or "fatwa" about a year after the May 2, 2011 Osama bin Laden raid in Abbottabad.

The decree had stated that polio drops were "poisonous" and the vaccination campaigns were a cover for the US-led Western espionage.

It ruled that vaccination was actually a Western-conspiracy to sterilise Muslims.

The pamphlets distributed in North Waziristan’s administrative centre, Miranshah, had read: "Polio campaigns are also used to spy for America against the mujahideen, one example of which is Dr Shakil Afridi."

Maulvi Nazir Wazir’s Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan faction in South Waziristan had followed with its own "ban" some 10 days later. Maulvi Nazir was yet another signatory to a peace deal with the Pakistan Army.

About Dr. Shakil Afridi, the October 6, 2011 edition of the "New York Times" had stated: "A Pakistani doctor who ran a vaccination programme for the American CIA to help track down Osama bin Laden should be put on trial for high treason, a government commission said, a move likely to anger American officials pushing for his release. American and Pakistani officials have said that the doctor, Shakil Afridi, ran a vaccination programme in Abbottabad, where Bin Laden was living, in an effort to obtain a DNA sample from him. Dr. Afridi was detained days after the American raid that killed Bin Laden by the Inter-Services Intelligence agency. The Pakistani commission investigating the raid said in a statement that that Dr. Afridi should be charged with "conspiracy against the state of Pakistan and high treason" on the basis of the evidence it had gathered. It was not clear whether the recommendation would lead to charges being filed. The charge would carry the death penalty."

On May 23, 2012, Shakil Afridi was sentenced to 33 years imprisonment for treason, initially believed to be in connection with the bin Laden raid, but later revealed to be due to alleged ties with a local Islamist warlord Mangal Bagh.

He was also ordered to pay Rs230,000 as fine. Soon after Afridi was sentenced to 33 years in prision, the US Senate had cut $33 million in aid to Pakistan, $1 million for each of the 33 years of Afridi's sentence.

Afridi's lawyers had appealed against the verdict on June 1, 2012.

On August 29, 2013, his sentence was overturned and a retrial was ordered. In mid-November 2013, the Reuters news agency had reported that he was charged with murder in regard to the death of a patient he had treated eight years previously.

In March 2015, Afridi's former lawyer, Samiullah Khan Afridi, was shot dead in Peshawar.

Here follow some major attacks on Pakistani polio workers since July 17, 2012:

-On July 21, 2012, gunmen killed a health worker in Karachi.

-In December 2012, during a three-day vaccination campaign, attacks in Karachi and KP’s Peshawar, Nowshera and Charsadda districts killed eight vaccinators, six of them women. Four of these women were killed in less than an hour in seemingly coordinated attacks in Karachi.

-After this incident, the Sindh Health Minister had halted the anti-polio drive in the port city, a decision that was condemned by the WHO and the UNICEF. A joint WHO-UNICEF statement had read: "Such attacks deprive Pakistan's most vulnerable populations — especially children  of basic life-saving health interventions. "US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, had also condemned the attacks, saying: "Any attack on health workers anywhere in the world is unacceptable."

-On January 31, 2013, two polio vaccination doctors perished in a roadside bomb blast in Waziristan on their way to the restive Khurram Agency.

-On April 10, 2013, gunmen killed a policeman protecting a team of female polio workers in northwestern Pakistan.

-On January 21, 2014, immunisation drive in Karachi was suspended following the attack on a vaccination team in the city's Qayyumabad area. Three polio workers had lost lives in this attack.

-On January 22, 2014, at least seven people were killed and nine others injured in an explosion near a police vehicle on its way for security duty for polio immunisation workers in Sardheri bazaar of Charsadda district.

-In another incident in Punjab's Bhakkar district, the vehicle of a polio vaccination team had also come under attack. The attack left the windows of the vehicle shattered, injuring the driver of the vehicle and a Lady Health Worker.

-These January 2014 attacks came just days after the World Health Organisation had warned that Peshawar was the world's "largest reservoir" of the polio virus.

-On February 14, 2015, the New York Times reported that unknown militants had attacked a vehicle carrying a polio vaccination team in Khyber tribal region in the northwestern Pakistan, killing the driver and wounding a health care worker.

-On February 13, 2015, a vaccination team was kidnapped in northern Balochistan’s Zhob district. The bodies of the vaccinator, a driver and two security personnel were found on February 18, 2015. Due to this incident, the Balochistan government had to postpone the anti-polio campaign in Quetta, Zhob, Sherani and Sibi districts because of looming security threats. Balochistan health department had established teams to administer polio drops to children below the age of five years in the aforesaid four districts.

On March 3, 2015, the National Geographic had reported that during the past two years, Taliban militants had killed 63 health workers and members of the security forces assigned to protect them.

-On May 19, 2015, one attacker was killed and a police constable was injured during an attack on a polio vaccination team in Mardan.

-Other international media houses had claimed that between December 2012 and end-September 2015, attacks on personnel linked to polio eradication had claimed 78 lives. 

-On January 13, 2016, at least 15 people were killed and several injured after a bomb had exploded near a polio centre near Quetta.

-And now on April 20, 2016, or just10 days after the World Health Organisation had expressed hope that polio was in its dying days and could be eradicated from Afghanistan and Pakistan within 12 months, seven police personnel, providing security to anti polio teams, were shot dead in Karachi.