June Issue 2012

By | News & Politics | Published 12 years ago

The authorities in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) may have thought they could defuse the latest stand-off between Pakistan and the United States over the fate of Dr Shakeel Afridi, the 48-year-old physician who doubled as a CIA informer and played a role in tracking down Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad through a fake anti-polio vaccination campaign. To this end, they convicted him for anti-state activities allegedly committed in Khyber Agency, instead of his role in the Laden affair.

The US, however, is adamant and wants Dr Afridi to be freed, instead of being punished on any count whatsoever. If the US had its way, Dr Afridi would be feted as a hero and not confined in a Peshawar jail, where his life is at risk not only from jailed militants but other inmates as well, as most Pakistanis consider him a traitor for working with the CIA.

The court of Nasir Khan, the Assistant Political Agent and Additional District Magistrate, Bara, with assistance from a customary tribal jirga, tried and punished Dr Afridi exactly a year after his arrest, for links with the outlawed militant group, Lashkar-e-Islam, led by the famed Mangal Bagh who operates in the Bara sub-division and the Tirah valley in the Khyber Agency. Dr Afridi was convicted on four counts of anti-state activities, under the provisions of the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), for providing financial and medical assistance to the Lashkar-e-Islam and was sentenced to 33 years imprisonment along with a fine of Rs 320,000.

This sentence did not please the US government, which is grateful to Dr Afridi for obtaining DNA samples from members of the bin Laden family through his fake vaccination drive, in an attempt to confirm the presence of the Al Qaeda founder in the Abbottabad compound. With the sentence, one more issue has been added to the growing list of disputes that characterise the uneasy US-Pakistan relationship.

The situation could take a turn for the worse if Dr Afridi is tried, as recommended by the assistant political agent, Bara in another court outside Khyber Agency on the charge of working for a foreign intelligence agency. In the five-page order issued by the agent after the trial, it was pointed out that the Joint Investigation Team (JIT), which normally includes officials of the ISI, Military Intelligence and the Intelligence Bureau, had obtained evidence to this effect but it wasn’t taken into account while awarding punishment to Dr Afridi, due to the lack of jurisdiction of the tribal court. It obviously meant that this evidence pertained to the Abbottabad incident, which was beyond the jurisdiction of the court of the assistant political agent, Bara. He recommended that the accused be produced before the relevant court for further proceedings under the law. Thus, Dr Afridi could be tried separately by a special court, possibly in Abbottabad, on charges of running the fake vaccination campaign to spy for a foreign intelligence agency. This could lead to an explosive situation because evidence would be presented in the court about the CIA’s expanding secret operations in Pakistan and its efforts to recruit agents even among government employees, including doctors. The trial could be open, unlike the one in Bara, Khyber Agency, conducted in secret by a jirga of four government-appointed tribal elders and overseen by the assistant political agent. Details of the trial in the special court could emerge and further strain US-Pakistan relations, more so between their premier intelligence agencies, the CIA and the ISI. Dr Afridi could be awarded a death sentence for treason and it isn’t difficult to guess how much that would enrage the US.

Already, certain quarters in the US have criticised the Obama administration and the CIA for their failure to fly out Dr Afridi and his family from Pakistan in time. This criticism would intensify if the US was unable to save Dr Afridi’s life or get him out of jail.

The court of the assistant political agent, Bara tried Dr Afridi for a crime committed in Khyber Agency’s Bara subdivision, which falls in its jurisdiction. Dr Afridi served in the government hospital in Dogra in the Bara area, running a private hospital where he carried out surgical procedures without qualifying as a surgeon and later headed the health department in the Khyber Agency. Though his family had settled in Multan, it originally hailed from Bara and belonged to the Malikdinkhel Afridi sub-tribe.

Trials conducted under the FCR do not meet even the most rudimentary standards of justice. The political administration constitutes a jirga comprising tribal elders of its choice and they oblige by delivering the desired verdict. Though the assistant political agent, Bara claimed in his order that the accused was given a chance to defend himself both in his court and before the jirga, one doesn’t know if Dr Afridi really got an opportunity to do so. Obviously, he didn’t have the services of a lawyer. Following the amendments last year in the FCR, he now has the right to appeal against the judgement to the commissioner FCR and finally to the FATA Tribunal. The FATA Tribunal is presently under a cloud as lawyers from the tribal areas have questioned its composition because none among its three members is a judge. Its chairman and one member are retired bureaucrats while another member is a lawyer with links to the PPP. Though the superior judiciary doesn’t have jurisdiction in FATA, Dr Afridi’s lawyers may also challenge the assistant political agent, Bara’s verdict in the Peshawar High Court.

This could lead to a long legal battle and Dr Afridi would have to spend a worrisome time in jail, facing threats to his life, both inside and outside the prison. Though he is currently in the tightly-guarded Peshawar Central Prison, the ANP-PPP coalition government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has expressed its inability to keep him safe in any of its prisons, more so after the Bannu jailbreak incident in April when the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militants freed 384 prisoners from the prison in a daring attack. They have asked the federal government to shift him to a more secure jail outside the province. In the meantime, the TTP has threatened to cut Dr Afridi to pieces if they find that he played a role in getting their hero, bin Laden, killed.

According to the assistant political agent, Bara’s findings, the Lashkar-e-Islam, whose leader Mangal Bagh was “loved” by Dr Afridi, received two million rupees as financial aid, but Mangal Bagh has denied any links with “such a shameless man,” and threatened to kill him if given a chance, as revenge for playing a role in getting bin Laden killed. According to its spokesman Abu Rashid Lashkari, his group had expelled Dr Afridi from Bara four years ago for overcharging doctor’s fees and conducting faulty surgeries. At that time they had also imposed a fine of one million rupees on him. He said the money was returned to those patients who had suffered at the hands of Dr Afridi. He also denied that Dr Afridi provided medical care to injured fighters of his group as their men had long ago realised his unreliable character. Ironically, a number of probes conducted against Dr Afridi by the health department in 2004, and earlier, had found him corrupt, unreliable and unfit for government service. His bosses accused him of sexual misconduct and pilferage, but he was resourceful enough to retain his job.

No doubt, Dr Afridi was resourceful and daring in agreeing to work for the CIA, stealing six packets of UN-donated anti-polio vaccines from Khyber Agency, hiring nurses and paramedics and undertaking a fake vaccination campaign in Abbottabad, in a bid to locate the head of the most dangerous organisation in the world. As his superiors in the health department observed in an inquiry report, Dr Afridi was obsessed with money and his decision to become a CIA informer was primarily motivated by an urge to rake in the dollars and not for a higher purpose.

This article was originally published in the June 2012 issue of Newsline under the headline “Adding to Fuel to the Fire” as part of the cover story on US-Pak relations.

Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.