Pakistan says “it would be willing” to discuss with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s administration freedom for a jailed Pakistani doctor who helped the United States track down Osama bin Laden.
The doctor, Shakil Afridi, is serving 33 years in a Pakistani prison on treason charges. U.S. authorities have denounced Afridi’s treatment as unjust and unwarranted and have frequently demanded his release.
“Pakistan would be willing to look at how we could move forward in a resolution of this problem,” Tariq Fatemi, the Pakistani prime minister’s foreign policy aide, told VOA’s Urdu service.
“We are not holding on to Dr. Shakil Afridi because of some personal animosity,” he insisted.
Afridi a hero
Afridi is hailed as a hero in the United States for helping the CIA obtain the Bin Laden family’s DNA by staging a fake immunization campaign in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad.
The move led to the May 2011 covert U.S. military raid that killed the al-Qaida leader. Weeks later, media revelations about Afridi’s role prompted Pakistani authorities to arrest him. He was tried and imprisoned in 2012. Afridi has challenged the sentence in an appeals court.
During his election campaign, Trump told Fox News that if elected he would get Afridi out of the jail “in two minutes.”
Fatemi told VOA that a presidential pardon could be sought for the doctor under Pakistani laws but only after judicial proceedings are concluded.
“The whole process has to go through the judiciary, and it is for the judiciary then to decide whether a case is ripe or not ripe for it to be sent to before the president for a possible exercise of the powers of the president to give pardon,” Fatemi said.
He reiterated that Afridi’s fake immunization drive seriously hurt and raised suspicions about vaccination programs the World Health Organization is running in Pakistan.
Observers expect the Afridi issue will continue to strain historically complicated bilateral relations under Trump’s new administration.
Relations are strained
The incoming administration’s election platform document has also indirectly referred to the issue, warning that the process of “strengthening of historic ties” between the United States and Pakistan “cannot progress as long as any citizen of Pakistan can be punished for helping the War on Terror.”
The two countries are allies in the war against terrorism, but Pakistan’s alleged support for Taliban insurgents and the Haqqani network fighting U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan has long strained bilateral relations.
But despite the troubled history and skepticism, some in Pakistan foresee a better future for mistrust-marred bilateral relations.
Syed Mushahid Hussain, a key Pakistani senator, believes President-elect Trump’s “frank and friendly” phone call to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif last month and his nomination of General James Mattis to be the secretary of defense have set the stage for better future ties.
Hussain says that during Mattis’ time as the head of the U.S. Central Command, which also covers Afghanistan and Pakistan, he frequently visited Pakistan and interacted with both military and civilian leaders.
“He knows Pakistan very well … and he knows the region quite well also. So, I think we already have laid the basis of a very robust and a very pro-active engagement between Pakistan and the United States at the highest levels of the Trump administration vis-a-vis the government of Pakistan.”
According to a Pakistani government readout of the November 30 phone call between Trump and Sharif, the U.S. president-elect said Sharif was “a terrific guy” and doing “amazing work.” It also quoted Trump as telling the Pakistani leader he would love to visit what he called a fantastic country with fantastic and amazing people.