Pakistan denied reports Thursday that it is secretly negotiating a deal for the release and handover to the United States of an imprisoned doctor who helped the CIA hunt down and kill al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden in 2011.
Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani doctor in question, led a fake hepatitis B vaccination campaign to collect genetic samples of the bin Laden family. The move assisted the U.S. military in tracking down the terror mastermind in the town of Abbottabad deep inside Pakistan.
Days later, Afridi was arrested after word spread about his role in the unilateral U.S. military raid that Islamabad condemned as a violation of its sovereignty. The doctor was swiftly tried and sentenced to a jail term of 23 years for treating and financing terrorists in his native tribal district on the Afghan border.
U.S. officials praised Afridi as their hero for helping Washington in bringing to justice the mastermind of the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S., and Afridi's continued imprisonment is among irritants straining bilateral ties.
“No deal [with the U.S.] is being negotiated," Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Faisal told his weekly news conference.
U.S. officials maintain that charges against Afridi were framed to punish him for his role in the successful raid that eliminated the fugitive al-Qaida chief. Washington has been consistently calling on Islamabad to release him.
Spokesman Faisal asserted that in recent meetings between U.S. officials and their Pakistani foreign ministry counterparts, Afridi’s issue has not been brought up, nor has there been any proposal under Pakistan’s consideration to hand him over to any country.
“On behalf of Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I can assure you that he is not being handed over to the U.S.,” he said.
No official comment from US
Reports about an alleged Pakistan-U.S. deal surfaced last week when authorities confirmed without explaining that Afridi had been airlifted from the northwestern city of Peshawar to the main prison in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, near capital city Islamabad.
The transfer took place ahead of the May 2 anniversary of the bin Laden raid, prompting speculation that Afridi could be on his way out of imprisonment. U.S. officials have not offered any comments on the latest developments involving the doctor.
A U.S. State Department official, while speaking to Reuters on the condition of anonymity last week, declined to speculate on Afridi’s transfer to another prison.
“We are aware of reports that Dr. Afridi has been transferred to another prison, and call on the government of Pakistan to take all necessary measures to ensure Dr. Afridi’s safety,” the official said.
Pakistani officials maintain they would not release Afridi under any U.S. pressure, saying he has been sentenced for working against the country’s “laws and national interests.”
Relations between Pakistan and the U.S. have deteriorated over allegations that Taliban insurgents fighting local and international forces in neighboring Afghanistan use sanctuaries on Pakistani soil to plan attacks, charges Islamabad rejects. Faisal reiterated Pakistan's stance at Thursday's briefing.
“There is no organized terrorist presence on Pakistani soil. However, Pakistan’s porous border with Afghanistan provides opportunities for movement of terrorists from either side,” he said.
Faisal noted that Pakistani security forces are strengthening border management, hoping Afghanistan and NATO-led forces will enhance security on the Afghan side of the frontier.