May 7th, 2021
By Rehan Piracha
The United States is ending its war in Afghanistan but the fate of Dr Shakil Afridi, often lauded by Americans for his role in the killing of Osama Bin Laden, hangs in balance.
Even in his joint address to Congress on April 29, US President Joe Biden skipped mentioning Dr Afridi’s name when he referred to the killing of Bin Laden as proof that the US forces had long ago ‘accomplished their mission’ in Afghanistan, adding that It was time to bring troops home.
Dr Shakil Afridi was arrested soon after American special operations team gunned down Bin Laden in Abottabad a decade ago. Dr Afridi, who will complete 10 years of his 23-year sentence on May 22, is in solitary confinement in the high-security prison in Mianwali.
According to his lawyer Qamar Nadeem, a petition challenged his conviction is pending before a three-member bench of the Peshawar High Court. Nadeem said Dr Afridi was tried under Section 11 of the Frontier Crimes Regulation in Khyber Agency where Dr Afridi was a former agency surgeon.
A trial court, headed by an assistant political agent, convicted Dr Afridi on four counts under different sections of the Pakistan Penal Code including Section 124-A (sedition), 121-A (waging or attempting to wage war against Pakistan), Section 123 (concealing design to wage war against Pakistan) and Section 123-A (condemnation of the creation of Pakistan).
Nadeem said Dr Afridi was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment on three counts and three years on the fourth count on May 23, 2011. He said the trial ordered that his sentences should run consecutively, which meant that Dr Afridi had to undergo a total of 33 years imprisonment, adding that the former surgeon was also fined Rs320,000. He said the trial did not convict Dr Afridi over the charges of helping CIA claiming that it lacked jurisdiction.
Dr Afridi’s family filed an appeal before the FCR’s commissioner against his conviction. In 2013, the FCR commissioner disposed of the appeal, saying the case should have been tried by the political agent. The commissioner’s order was challenged before the FATA Tribunal.
The tribunal remanded the case back to the FCR commissioner, directing it to pronounce a clear order regarding his trial by the political agent on charges of having links with a militant organisation. In 2014, the FCR commissioner upheld his conviction but set aside his conviction under section 123-A as that provision was not in the schedule of offences under the FCR. Dr Afridi’s sentence was reduced to 23 years imprisonment with fine of Rs220,000, Nadeem said, adding that the FCR commissioner ordered that the sentences should run consecutively and not concurrently.
Nadeem said Dr Afridi’s family again filed an instant revision petition before the FATA Tribunal which remained pending for four years. In 2018, the FATA Tribunal stood abolished upon the merger of erstwhile FATA with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, he said. All pending cases including Dr Afridi’s case, of the tribunal were transferred to the Peshawar High Court.
Nadeem Qamar said the family had moved a petition before the Peshawar High Court against Dr Afridi’s conviction. On March 11, a two-member bench of the high court had referred his petition to a three-member bench established by the court for hearing certain categories of cases belonging to erstwhile FATA.
Dr Afridi’s counsel said the high court has issued guidelines for hearing different cases due to the COVID pandemic. “I have no idea when Dr Afridi’s case will be fixed for hearing due to the guidelines,” he said. In his view, apart from his acquittal in the case, the court could order that the sentence should run concurrently instead of consecutively. “In that scenario, Dr Afridi would be freed as he has undergone 10 years of imprisonment,” he added.
Life in prison
His lawyer said Dr Afridi was moved to the high security prison in Sahiwal in a bid to torture and make it difficult for his family to visit him. He said family members last visited Dr Afridi two months ago. “The family members are forbidden in talking in their native language of Pashto when visiting Dr Afridi,” his lawyer said.
“The family members are not informed whenever he is ill or taken to hospital for check-up,” Nadeem said. According to family members, Dr Afridi looked weak and frail in their last visit. His lawyer said Dr Afridi has been in solitary confinement throughout his sentence.
The swap deal that never happened
Praising the role of Dr Afridi in helping track the Al-Qaeda chief, successive US administrations have protested against his imprisonment. Former US President Donald Trump had made the release of Dr Afridi one of his election promises.
When Prime Minister Imran Khan met President Trump in Washington in 2019, he had hinted that Pakistan was open to a prisoner swap with the United States. There were rumours that Dr Afridi could be swapped for Dr Aafia Siddiqui imprisoned on terrorism charges in the US. However, both governments remain tightlipped over any prisoner swap agreement.
US officials and legislators have not made statements calling for release of Dr Afridi for quite some time now, dashing any hope of a deal to free Dr Afridi.
In Pakistan, sentiments remain divided over Dr Afridi, seem by many as a spy for the United States. As the United States prepares to leave Afghanistan after 20 years, observers say the release of Dr Afridi will not be a hot button issue between the two countries as the case previously.