Pakistani Commission Wants Another Trial for Doctor Who Helped Find Bin Laden

July 9, 2013 - 5:02 AM

Shakil Afridi

This July 9, 2010 photo shows Pakistani doctor Shakil Afridi in the Pakistani tribal area of Jamrud in Pakistan's Khyber region. Afridi, who helped the U.S. track down Osama bin Laden, was sentenced to 33 years in prison on Wednesday, May 23, 2012, for conspiring against the state, officials said. (AP Photo/Qazi Rauf)

(CNSNews.com) – Shakeel Afridi, the Pakistani doctor who helped the United States track down Osama bin Laden, should be put on trial to determine his role in the affair, an official Pakistani commission of inquiry into the death of the al-Qaeda terrorist has recommended.

A leaked version of a report by the commission, released by Al-Jazeera on Monday, criticized the authorities for convicting Afridi on “trumped-up charges” unrelated to bin Laden.

It also noted that although three weeks passed between the U.S. Navy SEALS’ raid on bin Laden’s compound on May 2, 2011 and Afridi’s arrest, the CIA had not taken the opportunity to get him out of Pakistan.

In May 2012 a court in the Khyber tribal area near the Pakistan-Afghan border sentenced Afridi to 33 years’ imprisonment, after finding him guilty of providing assistance to a relatively obscure militant group operating in the area.

Those charges were largely discounted in the U.S., where supporters including Republican lawmakers view Afridi as a hero for helping track down bin Laden, under the cover of carrying out a public health vaccination program in the area where the fugitive was living.

Should the authorities take up the commission’s recommendation and put Afridi on trial for his role in the bin Laden raid, he could end up in an even more precarious situation than he already faces.

Afridi is one of more than 200 witnesses whose testimony appears in the 337-page report of the Abbottabad Commission, a panel established in June 2011 under retired Supreme Court judge Javed Iqbal to investigate the raid on the compound in Abbottabad, 70 miles north of Islamabad.

The commission criticized the authorities for convicting Afridi on “trumped up charges” in the Khyber court, saying that doing so had “completely undermined the credibility of the country and its judicial process.”

“Only a fair trial based on due process can establish the extent and nature of his involvement” in the bin Laden affair, it said, and stressed that the commission believes Afridi does have a case to answer.

In his testimony to the panel, Afridi denied knowing that his vaccination work in the spring of 2011 was a front for an attempt by CIA agents to determine whether bin Laden was indeed living in the suspect compound.

The report said Afridi had also denied being given any equipment to pinpoint the location of the compound, although he said that all of the vaccination project coordinators were issued with satellite phones.

The doctor’s work in Abbottabad ended on April 23, nine days before the compound was raided and bin Laden killed. Afridi was arrested three weeks after the raid.

“Afridi told the commission that had he been guilty he would have disappeared immediately before or after the raid,” the report noted.

“He said it never occurred to him that he was being involved in some U.S. intelligence scheme.”

But the commission did not buy his story, pointing to comments by Leon Panetta – CIA director at the time of the raid and later defense secretary – who publicly confirmed that Afridi had helped the U.S.

(Panetta told CBS “60 Minutes” in January 2012 that Afridi had “helped provide intelligence that was very helpful with regards to this operation,” and voiced concern about the legal action being taken against him.)

The panel said Panetta’s confirmation “rendered much of what Afridi told the commission very questionable, if not outright lies.”

It did concede that Afridi may not have been told the target of the mission, and also made the observation that the CIA had three weeks after the Abbottabad raid during which it could have “ferreted him out of the country,” yet had not done so.

‘Languishing away in a dungeon’

The commission report also outlined the findings of an investigation by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) bureau, which stated that Afridi had been recruited by the CIA “under the cover of USAID” in 2008.

It said that although he was not able to get into the Abbottabad compound during the vaccination program he did contact one of the occupants by phone.

“He was thus probably able to provide actionable intelligence (including ‘voice prints’) to the CIA,” the ISI investigation concluded.

The report said the ISI also alleged that Afridi had met with CIA operatives more than 25 times and had received payments amounting to around $100,000.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) have led attempts in the House and Senate to condition U.S. aid to Pakistan on the release of Afridi.

When Secretary of State John Kerry appeared before the House Foreign Affairs Committee last April to testify on the State Department’s FY2014 budget request – which includes $1.4 billion for Pakistan – Rohrabacher asked him about cutting aid to Pakistan over its treatment of Afridi.

“Cutting off aid to Pakistan would not be a good move, certainly at this point in time, for a lot of different reasons,” Kerry replied, citing counterterrorism and non-proliferation cooperation with Islamabad.

“Shame on us if we ignore Dr. Afridi languishing away in a dungeon,” Rohrabacher declared.

Kerry denied that the administration was “ignoring” Afridi.

“Believe me, this discussion, we have and it goes on. But it’s just not as simple – it’s not as simple as holding everything accountable to one thing, where they assert that there were certain laws that were broken, and you know the arguments,” he said. “Now that complicates it.”