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Pakistani Authorities Look For Safer Place To Incarcerate 'Bin Laden Doctor'

Peshawar's Central Prison, where Afridi is doing his time in an isolated cell, stands on a busy main road in the heart of the city.
Peshawar's Central Prison, where Afridi is doing his time in an isolated cell, stands on a busy main road in the heart of the city.
Just weeks after a doctor who helped uncover Osama bin Laden's hideout was sentenced to a lengthy prison term in Pakistan, local authorities are looking for a more secure facility to house the divisive physician out of concerns for his safety.

Bashir Bilour, a minister for the country's northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, says Dr. Shakil Afridi has received the best possible protection during his incarceration in Peshawar, the provincial capital.

But the doctor's reputation as a traitor among many Pakistanis, the presence of Taliban inmates at the jail, and a recent large-scale prison break elsewhere in the province have raised concerns, according to the minister.

In mid-April, Bilour's government came under harsh criticism after extremists freed hundreds of Taliban prisoners in a brazen jailbreak in the western city of Bannu, and Bilour says it cannot afford a repeat with Afridi.

"He was convicted in a region ruled by the federal government. We are now trying to move him into a place where his security can be ensured," Bilour says. "God forbid, if something happens to him, our province and Pakistan will get a bad name."

False Vaccination Program

Afridi, 48, was arrested three weeks after the May 2, 2011, raid on bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad that resulted in the death of the world's most-wanted man. He was detained after a Pakistani intelligence investigation alleged that Afridi helped verify the presence of bin Laden through a false vaccination program intending to collect DNA from the Al-Qaeda leader's family members.

Dr. Shakil Afridi in a 2010 photo
Dr. Shakil Afridi in a 2010 photo
Late last year, a special judicial panel recommended to the government that Afridi be charged with treason for assisting the Central Intelligence Agency, although the government has yet to press those charges. Treason is a capital crime in Pakistan.

But on May 23, Afridi was sentenced to 33 years in prison under an antiquated colonial law on the grounds that he had close links with an outlawed Islamic extremist group and was waging war against security forces.

Peshawar's Central Prison, where Afridi is doing his time in an isolated cell, stands on a busy main road in the heart of the city. The provincial administration has pushed for Afridi to be moved to a less vulnerable, maximum-security prison elsewhere in the country.

Move To Military Fort

Bilour says the administration first asked Islamabad to move Afridi to one of the high-security prisons in eastern Punjab Province, a request that was refused.

Bilour says the administration is now pushing the federal authorities to move Afridi into a military fort, which the minister believes would be more secure than the prisons guarded by police.

"He can be moved here [to the Bala Hisar fort], the Attock fort, or the fort in the [eastern city of] Lahore. In the past, they used to keep important political figures there," Bilour says. "He is now a high-profile prisoner and should be moved there for his security."

Samiullah Afridi, a lawyer who represents the doctor, says the provincial authorities have so far prevented him from meeting his client inside the Peshawar prison, citing security concerns. He says he and the doctor's family are worried for his security because a large number of the inmates are former militants.

"In central jail [in Peshawar], there are many Taliban and other people affiliated with religious extremists," Afridi says. "Now [he] is vulnerable because of all the propaganda against him in the media."
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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