Pakistan, US at loggerheads over the doctor who helped track down Bin Laden

Dr. Shakil Afridi, regarded a hero by the US but a villain in Pakistan, was transferred last month from Peshawar Central jail. (AFP)
Updated 18 May 2018
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Pakistan, US at loggerheads over the doctor who helped track down Bin Laden

  • Anti-aircraft gun was positioned above Dr. Shakil Afridi’s prison cell and his security detail doubled a few weeks before his transfer
  • Local media widely quoted a Russian news agency’s story of an alleged CIA-backed jailbreak to free Afridi

LONDON/ISLAMABAD/KARACHI: The US has expressed concerns for the safety of a doctor who helped track down Osama bin Laden, the world’s most wanted terrorist. It follows his transfer to a maximum security prison in Pakistan.

“We are aware of reports that Dr. Shakil Afridi has been transferred to another prison,” said Helaena White, the US State Department’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs spokesperson, told Arab News.

“We expect the government of Pakistan to take all necessary measures to ensure Dr. Afridi’s safety.”

The doctor, regarded as a hero by the US but a traitor in Pakistan, was transferred last month from Peshawar Central Jail, where he had been held since 2012 after being charged with anti-state activity and colluding with terrorists.

The Inspector General for Prisons in the northwest province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), Shahid Ullah, said that Afridi was moved on April 27 to the heavily guarded Rawalpindi Central Jail outside Islamabad, but declined to comment on the reason for the sudden transfer.

‘High-profile case’

KP government adviser on prisons Malik Qasim Khattak said: “It was our longstanding demand to shift Dr. Afridi from Peshawar.”

He said the doctor was a “high-profile case” and Peshawar prison, which holds the country’s most dangerous criminals and terrorists, was not appropriate for him.

Media reports suggest the authorities took the decision due to “security concerns.” However, details behind the sudden relocation of the high-value prisoner, who has been behind bars for seven years, remain vague.

The shift sparked speculation that Afridi may be released or handed over to the US.

The doctor’s lawyer and cousin, Qamar Nadeem Afridi, interpreted the transfer as a sign his client might be released soon. He said Afridi would complete a 10-year jail sentence on May 23 after official remissions were taken into account.

Afridi was initially sentenced to 33 years in prison on four different counts, but his jail term was reduced to 23 years in 2014. Under Pakistani law, when a prisoner is awarded concurrent sentences, he can be released after completion of his maximum sentence on one charge.

“I am sure Afridi will be released by the end of this month (May 2018),” the lawyer said.

A senior lawyer from Peshawar agreed that under Pakistani law Afridi could be released later this month, but said it was “unlikely that he will be set free.”

Latif Afridi (no relation to the doctor) said there was little chance of the prisoner being handed over to the US.

Afridi was charged under the Frontier Crimes Regulations, referred to as tribal law in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which would also hinder his release.

The doctor was charged with murder for trying to save a young boy stricken with appendicitis in 2005 while he was the Khyber Agency’s physician, according to his lawyer.

Afridi’s older brother, Jamil, said: “I am extremely anxious and don’t have any information on the whereabouts of my brother.”

He said Peshawar prison officials had refused to speak to him when he sought information on Afridi’s whereabouts.

Jamil was planning to meet Afridi before the news of his brother’s prison transfer became public. “I was going to meet him on Monday, but then this happened.”

Rescue bid 

Russia’s Sputnik news agency claimed on April 30 that an attempt to help Afridi escape had been foiled by the Pakistani intelligence agency ISI last December.

The agency said the CIA was behind the bid to rescue him.

Jamil said that he was surprised to hear of an alleged jailbreak attempt planned by the CIA. His last meeting with his brother in February was held under unusualy tight security, he said.

“The intelligence detail was doubled on my visit. Usually there would be two guards, but this time there were four,” he said. 

“Strangely, they allowed me to meet Shakil fairly quickly in less than half an hour and then introduced me to a Jirga (tribal council) who had come to speak on a murder case involving my brother. I refused to meet them.”

A Pakistan Foreign Ministry spokesman on May 3 denied any knowledge of a jailbreak attempt involving Afridi.

However, three senior security officials, who declined to be named, later told Arab News that Afridi was shifted to Punjab over credible intelligence reports of a planned jailbreak.

A US official privately rejected the claim that CIA had made an attempt to break Afridi free, calling it “propaganda without proof.”

The official said the Russian report raised more questions than it answered.

Afridi’s imprisonment has been a major thorn in Pakistan-US relations. Islamabad has rejected repeated American calls to free Afridi.

He was apprehended by intelligence officials on May 23, 2011, days after US special forces raided Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad and killed the Al-Qaeda chief.

The doctor ran a fake vaccination campaign to track down and confirm Bin Laden’s presence in the city at the behest of the CIA.

Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Dr. Mohammed Faisal, has denied reports of a deal between Pakistan and the US to free Afridi. “There is no deal underway to hand over Afridi to the US,” said.

“We will never hand over Afridi to America,” a senior security official said.

Meanwhile, the US keeps pushing to break the stalemate.

“We believe Dr. Afridi has been unjustly imprisoned and have clearly communicated our position to Pakistan on Dr. Afridi’s case, both in public and in private,” said Helaena White.


Hundreds of South Koreans to enter North to reunite with loved ones

Updated 56 min 14 sec ago
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Hundreds of South Koreans to enter North to reunite with loved ones

  • North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in agreed to the latest round of reunions during their first summit in April
  • The limited number of reunions cannot meet the demands of divided family members, who are now mostly in their 80s and 90s

SEOUL, South Korea: About 200 South Koreans and their family members prepared to cross into North Korea on Monday for heart-wrenching meetings with relatives most haven’t seen since they were separated by the turmoil of the Korean War.
The weeklong event at North Korea’s Diamond Mountain resort comes as the rival Koreas boost reconciliation efforts amid a diplomatic push to resolve a standoff over North Korea’s drive for a nuclear weapons program that can reliably target the continental United States.
The temporary reunions are highly emotional because most of those taking part are elderly people eager to see their loved ones once more before they die. Most of these families were driven apart during the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula still in a technical state of war.
Buses carrying the elderly South Koreans attending this week’s reunions arrived at a border immigration office Monday morning. Red Cross workers wearing yellow vests waved at them. Some were in wheelchairs and others were aided by workers as they got off the buses and moved to the South Korean immigration office in the eastern border town of Goseong. After undergoing immigration checks, they were to cross the border by buses and travel to Diamond Mountain.
Past reunions have produced powerful images of elderly Koreans crying, embracing and caressing each other. Nearly 20,000 people have participated in 20 rounds of face-to-face reunions held between the countries since 2000. Another 3,700 exchanged video messages with their North Korean relatives under a short-lived program from 2005 to 2007. No one has had a second chance to see their relatives.
According to Seoul’s Unification Ministry, 197 separated South Koreans and their family members will take part in the first round of reunions that run from Monday to Wednesday. Another 337 South Koreans will participate in a second round of reunions from Friday to Sunday.
South Korea will also send dozens of medical and emergency staff to Diamond Mountain to prepare for potential health problems considering the large number of elderly participants.
Many of the South Korean participants are war refugees born in North Korea who will be meeting their siblings or the infant children they left behind, many of them now into their 70s.
Park Hong-seo, an 88-year-old Korean War veteran from the southern city of Daegu, said he always wondered whether he’d faced his older brother in battle.
After graduating from a Seoul university, Park’s brother settled in the North Korean coastal town of Wonsan as a dentist in 1946. After the war broke out, Park was told by a co-worker that his brother refused to flee to the South because he had a family in the North and was a surgeon in the North Korean army.
Park fought for the South as a student soldier and was among the allied troops who took over Wonsan in October 1950. The US-led forces advanced farther north in the following weeks before being driven back by a mass of Chinese forces after Beijing intervened in the conflict.
Park learned that his brother died in 1984. At Diamond Mountain, he will meet his North Korean nephew and niece, who are 74 and 69, respectively.
“I want to ask them what his dying wish was and what he said about me,” Park said in a telephone interview last week. “I wonder whether there’s a chance he saw me when I was in Wonsan.”
During the three years since the reunions were last held, the North tested three nuclear weapons and multiple missiles that demonstrated a potential of striking the continental United States.
North Korea has shifted to diplomacy in recent months. Leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a son of North Korean war refugees, agreed to resume the reunions during the first of their two summits this year in April.
South Korea sees the separated families as the largest humanitarian issue created by the war, which killed and injured millions and cemented the division of the Korean Peninsula into the North and South. The ministry estimates there are currently about 600,000 to 700,000 South Koreans with immediate or extended relatives in North Korea.
But Seoul has failed to persuade Pyongyang to accept its long-standing call for more frequent reunions with more participants.
The limited number of reunions cannot meet the demands of divided family members, who are now mostly in their 80s and 90s, South Korean officials say. More than 75,000 of the 132,000 South Koreans who have applied to participate in reunions have died, according to the Seoul ministry.
Analysts say North Korea sees the reunions as an important bargaining chip with the South, and doesn’t want them expanded because they give its people better awareness of the outside world. While South Korea uses a computerized lottery to pick participants for the reunions, North Korea is believed to choose based on loyalty to its authoritarian leadership.