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Did The 'Bin Laden Doctor's' Sentencing Set A Precedent?

A TV grab announcing the sentencing of Doctor Shakil Afridi on May 23.
A TV grab announcing the sentencing of Doctor Shakil Afridi on May 23.
The 33-year jail term for Shakeel Afridi, the Pakistani doctor who allegedly helped track down 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden in his Abbottabad garrison, has kicked off fresh debate about Pakistan’s role in the decade-long counterterror effort and the country’s policy against militants.

Over the years, the political authorities in Pakistan’s tribal areas have been using the colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) to "tame the unruly tribesmen." Although the Pakistani government occasionally boasts of doing away with the FCR or extending political reforms to the tribal areas, the May 23 verdict by an assistant political agent (APA) suggests that the notorious law is still being used to lash the tribesmen for not toeing the government line.

The five-page verdict states that “there were reports that the accused [Afridi] is in league in antistate activities with the defunct organization Lashkar-e-Islam.” Those links were not publicly disclosed until the release of the detailed judgment on May 30.
SEE a .pdf of the five-page verdict

Interestingly, several senior Pakistani officials said Afridi was punished for spying on bin Laden. They defended the decision by saying that spying for another country is grounds for high treason.

The key question is: How was the state machinery unaware of the actual charge and instead defending a charge that was not included in the verdict?

There has been speculation that the detailed judgment made public on May 30 was carefully crafted to answer all of the questions raised by legal experts and close the loopholes reported in the media.

Lashkar-e-Islam (LI) is a militant outfit that has been operating in the Bara region of the Khyber tribal agency since 2004. Over the years, the group’s leader, Mangal Bagh -- a bus conductor-turned-reformist -- has been accused of involvement in kidnappings for ransom in the tribal areas and in the city of Peshawar.

Afridi was reportedly kidnapped in 2008 by Mangal Bagh’s men on the pretext that he was not paying proper attention to patients at Dogra Hospital, where he was serving as medical officer. The doctor was said to have been freed only after he and his family managed to pay 2 million rupees ($21,000) as ransom.

Another "serious" charge against Afridi is that he treated LI militants at the hospital.

Based on the reign of terror unleashed by Bagh and Lashkar-e-Islam in Bara, it's hard to imagine a doctor serving in the same region having the courage to refuse treatment to a militant. Rather, in those days, many key government officials boasted of having cordial ties with Mangal Bagh, and Afridi was no exception.

As for financial help, the state may call it what it wants, but reports suggest it was routine practice. Allegations emerged that several elected parliamentarians from Khyber tribal district had paid huge amounts to Mangal Bagh to ensure uninterrupted campaigns during the 2008 general elections.

The same year, Mangal Bagh issued an electioneering code of conduct for candidates from the Bara sub-district. They were forbidden from displaying party flags or posters on their houses or cars.

If payment of money is the charge against Afridi, one might expect investigations to follow into the cases of those kidnapped by Mangal Bagh and freed after payment of ransoms. The same for investigations into political leaders, included members of parliament, accused of the 2008 pre-election payments.

If the government is really interested in nabbing all those who are supporting the militants, there is also the question of the several mainstream religious parties and leaders whose support for the militant ideology seems to be an open secret. The public meetings of the Difa-e-Pakistan Council, where leaders such as Hafiz Saeeda, Maulana Samiul Haq, Hameed Gul, Ijazul Haq, Sheikh Rashid, and Monwar Hassan openly announce support for the militant agenda, are cases in point.

The state security agencies and Pakistani political leaders might equally be accused of links to militant groups, as they have entered into agreements with militants in Swat, Khyber, Kurram, and Waziristan and provided compensation to hard-core militant leaders after each agreement.

In punishing Afridi for links to militants, Pakistan may have sought to kill two birds with one stone -- meting out punishment for Afridi and absolving Islamabad of the charge that he was punished for having helped the CIA track down bin Laden. Rather, that narrative goes, he was punished for helping Lashkar-e Islam, which is the enemy of Pakistan, the United States, and the West.

How could anyone object?

-- Daud Khattak