Five years on, Dr Shakil Afridi languishes in jail

Published: May 2, 2016


PESHAWAR: Five years after his fake vaccination programme helped the CIA track and kill Osama bin Laden, Pakistani doctor Shakil Afridi languishes in jail, abandoned by the US, say supporters, in its bid to smooth troubled relations with Islamabad.

Afridi, believed to be in his mid-50s, has no access to a lawyer, and his appeal against a 23-year prison sentence has stalled.

“I have no hope of meeting him, no expectation for justice,” his elder brother Jamil told AFP.

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The former senior surgeon lives in solitary confinement in a small room, according to his lawyer, able to see his immediate family no more than six times a year.

Afridi’s role in one of the most famous assassinations of recent decades is murky.

Details of how he was sought out by the Central Intelligence Agency are unclear — Pakistani reports suggest officials at Save the Children acted as go-betweens, though the charity denies involvement.

What is known is that Afridi’s job was to run a fake Hepatitis C vaccination programme with the aim of obtaining genetic samples from Abbottabad, a garrison city and home to the Pakistan Military Academy, the country’s answer to Westpoint.

It was there that al Qaeda chief bin Laden and his family had set up home in the mid-2000s, under the noses — and some say protection — of senior Pakistani military officers.

In the darkness of May 2, 2011, two helicopters full of elite Navy Seals touched down inside the compound.

In a dramatic raid just one kilometre (half a mile) from the military academy, they fought their way in and surprised the terror mastermind.

They shot him in the head and fled with his body, abandoning a damaged Black Hawk helicopter.

The killing was a huge success for US President Barack Obama, whose country was profoundly scarred by the attacks on New York and Washington of September 2001.

It decapitated al Qaeda, badly hampering the organisation’s ability to carry out further atrocities.

But it drove a wedge between Islamabad and Washington, with lingering suspicions that the Pakistanis had for years been covering up the whereabouts of one the world’s most wanted men.

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Weeks after the raid, Afridi was arrested and thrown in jail, accused of having ties to militants, a charge he has always denied.

Commentators believe Pakistan opted to punish Afridi in this way, rather than try him for treason — aiding a foreign power — because that would have entailed a public trial that would have thrown a spotlight on Islamabad’s role in harbouring bin Laden.

A furious US senate committee voted to cut aid to Islamabad by $33 million — $1 million for each year of his original sentence.
The sentence was later cut by 10 years.

But since then, US pressure for Afridi’s release has tapered off, and analysts say Washington has dropped the issue, preferring to concentrate on what it sees as more pressing matters — such as negotiating with extremists in Afghanistan.

“The Taliban talks have taken priority over everything. The Americans don’t want to muddy the water by raising other issues that are contentious,” says Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani author and security expert.

Qamar Nadeem, Afridi’s lawyer who has been denied access to him for the past two years, believes his client’s best hope for early release is US pressure, “But so far they have not shown their support,” he says.

He is allowed to see his wife and children every two months or so, according to Nadeem. But an appeal against his sentence that began in 2014 is bogged down in adjournments and an uncooperative government.

Though elder brother Jamil and his siblings won a Peshawar High Court decision granting them visiting rights, that verdict has not been implemented, and he has been told by his lawyer that pursuing the matter could result in harm to the doctor.

“They are not admitting the High Court decision. What can I say? I am pessimistic,” he said.

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Author Rashid says justice for Afridi has gone by the wayside for the US, which would rather Pakistan use its influence with the Afghan Taliban to encourage them to restart peace talks with Kabul.

“The Americans have ceased to criticise Pakistan on many fronts,” he said.

But Michael Kugelman, an analyst at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington said all hope is not lost for Afridi.

He said, rather than having abandoned him, the Americans may have decided that shouting about it is not going to work.

“In Washington the issue has likely moved off the front burner because it’s clear that Pakistan isn’t willing to play ball and negotiate an arrangement that could set him free,” he said.

“(But) the Afridi issue has never really gone away, and my sense is that US officials quietly press Pakistan about it from time to time.”

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Reader Comments (20)

  • omer
    May 2, 2016 - 9:34AM

    this guys is solely responsible for deaths of countless health workers & innocent Kids getting suffered from polio. his greed for money made him to do what he did. perhaps US May realise this one day and offer Pakistan an apology ?? one can certainly wishRecommend

  • wiserneighbour
    May 2, 2016 - 9:56AM

    @omer, he helped to catch and assasinate one of the deadliest terrorist known to mankind.The world do not consider him as a threat.He is an asset.Pakistan should apologise to the world for jailing him under false accusations.Release him or start eating grass.Recommend

  • Last Man Alive
    May 2, 2016 - 10:04AM

    This “American Hero’s” feat of fake polio vaccination campaign has so far rendered

    hundreds of thousands of common Pakistani children at the veritable risk

    of Polio. He deserves to be tried for actually inflicting those

    hundreds of Polio stricken children with Polio

    maliciously and intentionally. Recommend

  • faria
    May 2, 2016 - 10:49AM

    @wiserne.. We would rather eat grass than apologizing to his American sanctuaries.There was no Osama bin laden whole world knows that. Obama administration used this fake operation to save his ever declining reputationRecommend

  • Azi
    May 2, 2016 - 11:14AM


    Maybe you didn’t get the point Omer tried to convey. Due to the tactic employed polio drives are being targeted resulting in many nurses and policemen guarding them, administering drugs to help out humanity and will be attacked for who knows how long.

    If you cant understand this simple logic then you truly are one of those Indians that attach to NO to every thing Pakistan, as usual.Recommend

  • Iqbal
    May 2, 2016 - 11:30AM

    Indeed Ghani-Abdullah’s Pakistan Isolation is working very well.Recommend

  • Maverick
    May 2, 2016 - 12:13PM

    There is no vaccine for Hepatitis C tribuneRecommend

  • Kalimullah
    May 2, 2016 - 12:17PM

    If they released him he can get US citizen and he will send money to Pakistan !!!!!Recommend

  • @wiserneighbour
    May 2, 2016 - 1:04PM

    There is no problem in helping to catch a terrorist but the tactics used to catch him by Afridi is not only unethical but it will continue to have repercussions. Since he used Polio campaign for his purpose so now Polio campaigns are considered suspicious by people !Recommend

  • nasser
    May 2, 2016 - 1:31PM

    Funny…. when India could not succeed isolation pakista how come Afghanistan can do it? Afghanistan can’t even tie their shoelaces without outside help .


  • goldconsumer
    May 2, 2016 - 2:09PM

    Does hepatitis C vaccine exists?Recommend

    May 2, 2016 - 2:22PM

    I would like to congratulate the Pakistani health authorities for the discovery of the hepatitis C vaccine, however I guess Dr Afridi was probably using Hepatitis A or B vaccines.Recommend

  • ajay gupta
    May 2, 2016 - 2:40PM

    why didnt he negotiate his escape before the seals swooped down? a week b4 the attack us had all the proof they needed and his job was over, surely! what did he expect once the incident and his role came to light?Recommend

  • FAZ
    May 2, 2016 - 2:46PM

    Who are they?Recommend

  • curious2
    May 2, 2016 - 6:59PM

    @ajay gupta: why didnt he negotiate his escape before the seals swooped down?
    Probably because he didn’t think he did anything wrong. He provided blood samples to a Pakistan ally which brought down a stated enemy of Pakistan and the World. In hindsight he was obviously naive.Recommend

  • Solomon2
    May 2, 2016 - 9:43PM

    There was no “fake vaccination program.” Dr. Afridi was running a program to vaccinate against [hepatitis B][1]. That’s a real vaccine. That his program wasn’t completed was due to his arrest. To this day – in this very comment thread – there are still people who believe it was polio, rather than realizing that anti-polio forces distorted the truth in an attempt to discredit the polio vaccination program. Recommend

  • Voiceless Pakistani
    May 2, 2016 - 11:50PM

    Five years on hundreds of children

    languish in the clutches of

    Polo thanks to the fake

    Polio campaign run

    by this greedy man.Recommend

  • Sexton Blake
    May 3, 2016 - 12:56AM

    Why didn’t the Americans take OBL to America and give him a legal trial, if in fact the US knows how to do that?Recommend

  • Anon
    May 3, 2016 - 5:54AM

    @Solomon2: you think it matters whether it was polio of hepatitis?


  • Anon
    May 3, 2016 - 5:55AM

    Here’s a deal we can offer the US… They release Chelsea manning and we’ll release afridi!Recommend

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