ISLAMABAD - This week's sentencing of Shakil Afridi, a Paksitani doctor who helped the CIA hunt down Osama bin Laden, to 33 years in prison for alleged treason has added new strains to Pakistan’s already problematic relationship with the United States.
The reaction among top U.S. leaders was outrage. They demanded Pakistan immediately release the doctor. Officials in Islamabad, however, insist Dr. Afridi’s case was decided in accordance with the country’s justice system and the United States must respect the legal process.
Pakistan's Interior Minister Rehman Malik reiterated that view on Friday.
“The person happened to be a traitor, the person happened to be before the court," said Malik. "The court has observed, the court has taken the due process of law and accordingly he has been convicted. So we have to respect our courts.”
The jailed doctor assisted the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in organizing a fake polio immunization campaign to track down Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad. The al-Qaida leader was killed in a secret U.S. raid there last year.
The Pakistani government detained Shakil shortly after the raid and put him on trial for treason in his native Khyber region, which is governed by a century old tribal justice system not applicable to the rest of Pakistan.
The tribal court found the doctor guilty of treason and handed down its 33 year-long prison term. Under the tribal judicial system, Dr. Shakil did not have access to a lawyer.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday criticized Afridi’s treatment as “unjust and unwarranted,” saying it is one of the pressing issues U.S. officials are discussing with Pakistani authorities. She told reporters in Washington that his actions were in no way a betrayal of Pakistan.
"The United States does not believe there is any basis for holding Dr. Afridi," Clinton said. "We regret both the fact that he was convicted and the severity of his sentence. His help, after all, was instrumental in taking down one of the world’s most notorious murderers.”
Also on Thursday, U.S. senators voted to cut aid to Pakistan by $33 million, $1 million for every year of Dr. Afridi’s jail term.
Defense analysts like former army general Talat Masood warn that unless both sides take serious measures to check the declining levels of trust, the relationship may rupture irreparably.
“I think things don’t look good at all," Masood said. "In fact, we are moving in such a direction that it is very much possible things might get worse before they get better. So I think there is a need for trying to see as to how we can reconcile and reposition ourselves in the sense that both sides seem to be taking hard positions.”
Relations between Islamabad and Washington have deteriorated continuously since the November cross-border NATO airstrike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. Pakistan announced various punitive measures after the airstrike, including the closing of supply routes to NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Islamabad is demanding an apology for the deadly raid, an immediate end to U.S. drone attacks on its territory and heavy transit fees for convoys carrying supplies for NATO forces in return for reopening its border.