Osama bin Laden lived peacefully and safely in this country for many years and yet, the only person to have been punished for that so far is the man who helped locate him. Other than that no action has been taken against anybody in the government’s intelligence or law-enforcement apparatus, either on account of how American helicopters intruded so deep inside Pakistani territory or on account of how Osama bin Laden managed to live in Pakistan, apparently undetected for so many years. Dr Shakil Afridi, who ran a vaccination programme to collect DNA samples of Osama bin Laden’s family at the behest of the US, was given a 33 year sentence by a tribal court under the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR). Why he was tried and sentenced in Khyber Agency when the crime took place in Abbottabad, which is in the settled areas and thereby under the jurisdiction of the Peshawar High Court remains to be answered. By trying him under the FCR — notwithstanding an unnamed government official telling news wires that he has the right of appeal — Article 247 of the Constitution effectively bars the high court or the Supreme Court from jurisdiction on this matter. And, to make the whole ‘trial’ even more controversial, as perhaps is the norm in such matters under the FCR, the doctor did not have a lawyer.
No wonder then that this verdict is bound to be questioned by many. For starters, there is the argument — with some justification — that helping locate the world’s most wanted man should not warrant 33 years in jail, even if it meant helping a foreign government in the process. Of course, this is not to say that Dr Afridi did not violate the laws of the land — he did, but did he deserve such a stiff prison term? Furthermore, two of the three charges that he was convicted of are, “waging war against Pakistan”, and “concealing a plan to wage war against Pakistan” should be seen in the context of the eventual outcome, which was that the country was rid of perhaps the world’s most dangerous terrorist; a man whose organisation and its affiliates have the blood of thousands of Pakistanis on their hands. Moreover, the previous government of General Pervez Musharraf handed to the US dozens of al Qaeda leaders and not a single case of violation of sovereignty or of ‘waging war against Pakistan’ was filed against anyone.
The sorry fact is that Dr Afridi’s treatment tells us — and the outside world — a lot about our priorities. We are still fixated with the US violation of our sovereignty on May 2, but choose to ignore that militants have been freely using our territory for years. This has also been the great failing of the commission tasked to investigate the circumstances around the May 2 raid. Instead of focusing on how Osama was able to freely live in Abbottabad and instead of determining if he was doing so with the support of anyone in the government or the military, the commission, too, has been preoccupied with the sovereignty question. There is another aspect to this as well. Ordinary Pakistanis have seen, how in recent months, dreaded killers and those who spew sectarian hatred and incite others to murder and cause mayhem have been let off by courts on account of “lack of evidence”. In fact, this doesn’t apply only to those who kill in the name of religion but even, say, to Karachi, where dozens of target killers have held the city practically hostage, killing hundreds in the process. However, one has yet to see a single one of these criminals being convicted and given a lengthy prison sentence. Juxtapose this with the case of Dr Shakil Afridi, who helped in the capture and removal from Pakistan of Bin Laden and who was given a swift ‘trial’, with no lawyer, and handed down a prison term of over 30 years! No wonder the only message the rest of the world, and many within this country, will get from this is that we are not serious about fighting al Qaeda and the Taliban and that the anti-Americanism within us is now so virulent, it prevents us from seeing and doing things that are otherwise in our own interest.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 25th, 2012.