ISLAMABAD: Pakistani officials believe meetings held with visiting US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week in Islamabad have “reset an environment” of frosty relations, but “the step towards starting fresh relations begins with releasing Dr. Shakil Afridi,” his lawyer told Arab News.
“Until then, they can make their best efforts to mend relations, (but) it would be ineffective,” said Qamar Nadeem Afridi, the lead attorney and cousin of the jailed doctor.
The doctor has languished in prison since 2012, not including the year he was incarcerated without charge, held for interrogation after US Navy Seals killed Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden. In canvasing the aftermath of the raid, Pakistani intelligence discovered a phone with Dr. Afridi’s number that led to his arrest.
The US canceled $300 million to Islamabad via the Coalition Support Fund (CSF) ahead of the top US diplomat’s visit, citing the lack of “Pakistani decisive actions” in support of the Trump administration’s South Asia strategy, vital to its success in ending the Afghan war.
Both sides have tabled their differences since the unveiling of the Afghan and South Asian strategy by Washington in 2017, but instead of achieving a mutual understanding on a range of issues, the situation spiralled downward.
The US government has repeatedly asked Pakistan to release the doctor, hailed as a hero in the United States. He played a pivotal role in a CIA operation to run a fake hepatitis B vaccination program aimed at confirming bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad, Pakistan, by collecting DNA samples.
A few days after US Special Forces raided the bin Laden compound on May 2, 2011, and killed the Al-Qaeda leader, Dr. Afridi was arrested. A year later he was sentenced to 33 years in prison for colluding with terrorists. The conviction was overturned on a technicality, and a retrial ordered. His sentence was reduced to 23 years, which the prosecution has fought to reverse.
The Afridi affair has contributed to a souring in relations between Washington and Islamabad, dating back to the presidency of Barack Obama. Legislation was introduced in the US Congress to award Dr. Afridi a Congressional Gold Medal (the highest civilian award) and make him a naturalized US citizen. In 2014, a Senate panel cut aid to Pakistan by $33 million – $1m for each year of the doctor’s sentence.
“We believe Dr. Afridi has been unjustly imprisoned and we have clearly communicated our position to Pakistan on Dr. Afridi’s case, both in public and in private. We continue to raise this issue at the highest levels during discussions with Pakistan’s leadership. Pakistan has assured us that Dr. Afridi is being treated humanely and is in good health,” the US Embassy in Islamabad has repeatedly said.
There is no indication whether the doctor’s case was brought up during the US delegation’s discussions with Prime Minister Imran Khan, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and the Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa.
In the past, US officials have refrained from discussing the doctor in meetings with Pakistani counterparts because the matter has sparked a negative response and has been particularly damaging towards other bilateral issues, a US official told Arab News privately.
For the first time in six years, Dr. Afridi was shifted from Peshawar Central Jail to a prison in Rawalpindi in April over unconfirmed reports of a failed jailbreak foiled by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence which was allegedly hatched by the CIA. But after former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, his daughter and son-in-law were imprisoned in the same jail on corruption charges in July, it can only be assumed that authorities decided to relocate the doctor over security concerns.
“He was shifted last month on a Sunday (Aug. 26) along with some 20 other prisoners to Sahiwal jail,” Jamil Afridi, the doctor’s elder brother, confirmed to Arab News.
Though his lawyer and brother have expressed that the great distance to travel to the jail in southern Punjab makes it difficult to meet their convicted family member, they said they have not lost hope that the doctor’s release might occur any time, even during Imran Khan’s administration.