The Pakistani doctor who helped the CIA in its hunt for Osama bin Laden was sentenced Wednesday to 33 years in prison for treason, officials in northwest Pakistan’s tribal area said.
Shakil Afridi, a government surgeon in the semi-autonomous Khyber Agency along the border with Afghanistan, was detained by Pakistani intelligence officials a few weeks after the U.S. raid that killed bin Laden.
Held for a year, he was eventually tried in a tribal judicial system that denies the accused the right to have an attorney or to present evidence.
U.S. officials say Afridi helped the CIA by collecting DNA samples through a hepatitis vaccination program in Abbottabad, where bin Laden had been in hiding for six years. They have roundly criticized his detention.
The CIA declined to comment Wednesday on Afridi’s sentence. But a senior U.S. official with knowledge of counter-terrorism operations in Pakistan said the surgeon “was never asked to spy on Pakistan. He was asked only to help locate al-Qaeda terrorists, who threaten Pakistan and the U.S. He helped save Pakistani and American lives. His activities were not treasonous, they were heroic and patriotic.”
Pentagon spokesman George Little said “anyone who helped the United States find bin Laden was working against al-Qaeda, and not against Pakistan.”
Afridi was remanded to a jail in Peshawar and ordered to pay a fine amounting to about $3,500, Khyber Agency officials said.
Under a recent reform of the much-despised criminal codes, which were created more than a century ago by the colonial British rulers of India to put down tribal revolts, Afridi has the right to appeal to an agency tribunal. The laws have been kept in place by Pakistan’s central government.
Muhammad Nasir Khan, an assistant political agent in the Khyber Agency, said Afridi was convicted of helping a foreign country after a three-month trial. The formal charges included cooperation in war against the state and interference in state affairs.
U.S. officials said Afridi was never able to access the bin Laden compound, meaning he did not succeed in securing the al-Qaeda leader’s DNA and confirming his presence there.
A Pakistan government commission tasked with reviewing intelligence failures related to the unilateral U.S. operation that killed bin Laden, on May 2, 2011, had previously recommended that Afridi be tried for treason. The government has fired 17 other health workers who assisted in the vaccination program.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told the House Foreign Affairs Committee in March that Pakistan had no basis for holding Afridi. “His work on behalf of the effort to take down bin Laden was in Pakistan’s interests as well as in America’s,” she said.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, speaking on CBS’s “60 Minutes” in January, called Afridi’s detention “a real mistake” by Pakistani authorities.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), also has championed Afridi’s case, submitting a bill to grant him U.S. citizenship. “This bill shows the world that America does not abandon its friends,” he said.