The Pakistani doctor who helped the CIA track and kill Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden has launched a hunger strike from his prison cell, his lawyer and family said Monday. Shakeel Afridi has been languishing behind bars for years since his fake vaccination program helped US agents track and kill the Al Qaeda leader in 2011.
"It is to protest the injustices and inhumane attitudes being committed against him and his family," his brother Jamil Afridi told AFP after meeting with Afridi in a prison in central Punjab province. His attorney Qamar Nadeem also confirmed the hunger strike. Shakeel Afridi was jailed for 33 years in May 2012 after he was convicted of having ties to terrorists, a charge he has always denied. His sentence was later reduced by 10 years. Some US lawmakers have branded the case as revenge for his help in the search for the Al Qaeda chief.
The 2011 killing of Bin Laden caused massive embarrassment for Pakistan and particularly its powerful military. For years Afridi has had no access to his lawyer, while his appeal against his prison sentence has stalled with scheduled court appearances repeatedly delayed. His family has also complained of being targeted and harassed by authorities over the years.
US President Donald Trump vowed during his election campaign that he would order Pakistan to free Afridi, but since taking office has been largely silent on the issue. The comments sparked a blistering rebuttal from Pakistan, whose interior minister at the time branded Trump "ignorant" and stated that the "government of Pakistan and not Donald Trump" would decide Afridi's fate. In recent years Pakistani authorities have cracked down on nonprofits and forced them to leave the country, which analysts say was largely tied to the Afridi case due to the security establishment's fears that NGOs have provided cover for spying.
Considered as an enemy by many in his country, Dr. Shakil Afridi, helped the CIA to track down the then most wanted terrorist in Pakistan's Abbottabad. In order to track the Al Qaeda chief's hideout, the doctor had launched a hepatitis B vaccination campaign in areas near Abbottabad to determine the terrorist's DNA.
However, back in July last year, Pakistan PM Imran Khan on his maiden state visit to the US claimed that it was the ISI that provided information to the CIA, which later tracked the intelligence agency to track down Bin Laden. During an interview with Fox News, when asked whether his government would release the jailed Pakistani surgeon Shakeel Afridi, he said, "It was the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) that gave the information which led to the location of Osama bin Laden. If you ask the CIA it was the ISI which gave the initial location through the phone connection."
Responding to questions, Khan was reluctant to give any commitment to the release of the Pakistani doctor Afridi, even as US President Trump has been apparently seeking his release. Imran Khan said that the release of Afridi is an "emotive issue" for Pakistan as in the country he is considered a spy for the US. "We in Pakistan always felt that we were an ally of the US and if we had been given the information about Osama, we should have taken him out," he said.
Khan had also said he would be willing to consider releasing Afridi in exchange for Pakistani neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui, who is serving an 86-year US prison sentence after her 2010 conviction of shooting at FBI agents and soldiers. "So, we could negotiate some sort of swap," Khan said, adding that this was not talked about during his meeting with President Trump in the White House on Monday. The negotiations for the swap of Afridi and Siddiqui could take place in the future, he said. "We can negotiate. I mean, no negotiations have started," Khan confirmed.
(With PTI inputs)