Prior to the killing of Osama bin Laden I would have told you that anyone responsible in bringing him down would be an unequivocal hero to the world. Trust Dr Shakil Afridi to make that difficult.
The doctor is back in the news because of the prison sentence of 33 years given to him by the assistant political agent of Khyber Agency for collaborating with the CIA. One would imagine that Pakistan would be happy that a terrorist responsible for the deaths of many Pakistanis and people in general was resting deep with the fishes. But no, our problem was the US incursion of May 2. The calm of having a dangerous terrorist removed never took place because the paranoid feared repeats of the brazen display of US capabilities which shamed the hidden soldiers in our citizens.
In the litany of problems we have with the US, Dr Afridi is one of the footnotes. They want him freed so they can fete him like a hero. Leon Panetta tells us we need to recognise him as a patriot, Senator John McCain expresses his admiration and another US lawmaker wants him to receive a US congressional medal.
And we imprison this man? The truth is that the US is stark raving mad to think that Pakistan would not act against him. He may have helped bring down an abominable man, but his reasons may well be suspect. Dr Afridi imperilled the people who helped him with the vaccination drives, they were unwitting pawns in his larger understanding with the CIA. He caused those health workers to lose their jobs. He hurt the cause of vaccinations, already demonised in this country and especially in that region by madmen drunk with religious fervour.
Most reports seem to suggest that Dr Afridi was not even aware of the target, which means he was ready to toady the Americans and was not exactly cooperating in finding a terrorist. But in this whole drama the truth is that the Americans are the one who sold Dr Afridi down the river.
If they have the top brass in the US now making sympathetic noises to his plight, they had the option of flying him out of the country before the raid took place to bring down OBL. They didn’t. He was caught and the machinery of the security establishment started moving. If he was as important as Leon Panetta suggests, then the US has been a terrible ingrate in leaving the doctor to fend for himself.
But rather than play the irascible child Pakistan’s foreign policy sometimes tends to be, the current actions have been decent realpolitik. A death sentence would have been a mad punishment that would have played into Pakistan’s international demonisation, and it would have been excessive. As it stands 30-plus years is also undue, but it gives the government room to commute his sentence eventually.
While it seems from the fragments we know of Dr Shakil Afridi suggest that he was motivated less by idealism and more by money, the end result is that his actions have made Pakistan better off. The ideal situation would be that he does some time in Pakistan, eventually to be let free to pursue whatever the US has to offer him. He won’t find buyers for his ‘heroics’ here.
All this, of course, is premised on the assumption that his sentencing was just. And it wasn’t. He was tried in Khyber Agency for a crime committed in Abbottabad. The nation has a right to hear his side of the story in the remote hope that this was a man who was listening to his conscience, that he believed there were those in the military complicit in keeping OBL here. Only that would go some way to explain why he did what he did. I doubt that’s the case, but the man deserves his day in court. Pakistan has a right to sentence those spying for other countries, just as Dr Afridi has a right to defend himself. While the US has already given evidence against him by confirming his role, we need to know if there was mitigating circumstances, of which now it seems there is little.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 25th, 2012.
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