Shakeel Afridi, Aafia Siddiqui & national honour

Dr. Aafia SiddiquiBy S. M. Hali

Pakistan is facing numerous problems of a myriad nature. It is difficult to pinpoint, which is more ominous since the very existence of Pakistan is at stake. Attempts by different perpetrators to have Pakistan labeled as a terrorist state and have international sanctions imposed upon it is but one the few, which can have far reaching consequences.The discovery of Osama bin Laden (OBL)’s alleged hideout in Abbottabad and the clandestine operation by US forces to eliminate the world’s most wanted person OBL, the founder and head of the militant group Al-Qaeda, who was eliminated on May 2, 2011, in a well planned and meticulously executed operation, code named “Operation Neptune Spear” brought grief to Pakistan. The main protagonists were the US Navy SEALs of the US Naval Special Warfare Development Group (also known as DEVGRU or SEAL Team Six). The operation itself was strategized and conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), while in addition to DEVGRU; participating units included the US Army Special Operations Command’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) and CIA operatives.

OBL’s elimination brought Pakistan under intense international scrutiny after the raid. The Pakistani government denied that it had sheltered OBL but initially, international bodies jumped to the conclusion that Pakistani government, law enforcing agencies and the military were in collusion for harbouring and protecting OBL. Later detailed investigations by the US as well as the Abbottabad Commission formulated by the Government of Pakistan absolved the ISI or Pakistan military of charges of collusion and harbouring OBL but found them culpable of neglect and inefficiency in detecting the presence of the high value target within Pakistan.

Numerous books have now been written by the protagonists and media persons privy to the plan. Some border on fiction and speculation while Hollywood has gone to the extent of producing movies on the subject. Information gleaned from overt sources indicate that the CIA led the effort to surveil and gather intelligence on the compound; other critical roles in the operation were played by other United States agencies, including the National Security Agency, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), and US Defence Department  According to “The Washington Post”, “The [intelligence-gathering] effort was so extensive and costly that the CIA went to Congress in December [2010] to secure authority to reallocate tens of millions of dollars within assorted agency budgets to fund it,” U.S. officials said.The CIA rented a home in Abbottabad from which a team staked out and observed the compound over a number of months. The CIA team used informants and other techniques to gather intelligence on the compound.

The rationale behind presenting this detailed preamble was to show the severity of the issue, the expenses involved and length of trouble taken by the perpetrators to keep the mission under wraps from Pakistan. It is more disturbing that the CIA used Pakistanis to aid them into achieving their objective. One informant is Dr. Shakil Shakeel Afridi, a Pakistani physician who helped the CIA run a fake vaccine program in Abbottabad, to confirm OBL’s presence in the city by obtaining DNA samples. Details of his activities emerged during the Pakistani investigation of the deadly raid on OBL’s compound. Afridi was arrested at the Torkham border while trying to flee the country days after the raid.Colleagues at Jamrud Hospital in Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber tribal were suspicious of Dr. Shakeel Afridi’s, the hospital’s chief surgeon, absences which he explained as “business” to attend to in Abbottabad. Dr Afridi was accused of having taken half-dozen World Health Organization cooler boxes without authorization. The containers are for inoculation campaigns, but reportedly, no immunization drives were underway in Abbottabad or the Khyber agency. On 6 October 2011, the Pakistani commission investigating Bin Laden’s death recommended that he be charged with “conspiracy against the state of Pakistan and high treason” on the basis of available evidence. Pakistani investigators said in a July 2012 report that Afridi met 25 times with “foreign secret agents, received instructions and provided sensitive information to them.”

On 23 May 2012, he was sentenced to 33 years imprisonment for treason, initially believed to be in connection with the bin Laden raid, but later revealed to be due to alleged ties with a local Islamist warlord Mangal Bagh. Lawyers appealed against the verdict on 1 June 2012. On 29 August 2013, his sentence was overturned and a retrial ordered.

Parallels are drawn to this case with Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, who was indicted in New York federal district court in September 2008 on charges of attempted murder and assault stemming from an incident in an interview with U.S. authorities in Ghazni, charges which Siddiqui denied. After 18 months in detention, she was tried and convicted in early 2010 and sentenced to 86 years in prison. The Pakistani government has supported Dr. Siddiqui, her conviction resulted in protests in Pakistan and there have demands of her extradition to Pakistan. A ray of hope for her return home has appeared after the Pakistani Federal Cabinet’s approval for signing of the Council of Europe Convention, dealing with the transfer of prisoners sentenced abroad. It is hoped and prayed that Dr. Aafia Siddiqui is repatriated at an early date but certain quarters suggest that Aafia Siddiqui be exchanged with Dr. Shakeel Afridi. This would be unfair, because Dr. Siddiqui can be extradited on merit as the case against her is weak. On the other hand, public perception is that Commissioner Frontier Crimes Regulations overturned the jail sentence of Shakeel Afridi just a day after the cabinet decision to signing the extradition treaty with US, under duress to find a plea for facilitating the exchange of Aafia with Afridi. Such a move would tarnish the image of Pakistan and portrayed as a government that can be blackmailed into submission.

It must be recalled that soon after the arrest and sentencing of Dr. Shakil Afridi, there were moves in the US Parliament to declare Dr. Afridi a hero and award him with a medal for supporting the elimination of OBL. Pressure was applied for his extradition to the US but the previous government resisted the move. The new government should also resist because Dr. Afridi is a Pakistani national and must undergo a fair retrial for having made wrong choices, disregarding his national duties and selling his soul to Mephistopheles for a handful of dollars. National honour is supreme and must be upheld.


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