WASHINGTON/ISLAMABAD - The lawyer and family of Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani physician who helped the United States track down former al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, told VOA that Afridi continues to suffer in prison under dire conditions.
Qamar Nadeem, Afridi’s lawyer, expressed optimism that the fate of his client would be discussed during the planned meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan next week at the White House.
“Dr. Afridi can’t sleep properly, due to harsh conditions and sweltering heat, as there is no window in the cell where he is kept,” Nadeem said. “Imran Khan is visiting the U.S., but if Dr. Afridi remains in pain, then I think the visit won’t be a success.”
Speaking to VOA, Jamil Afridi, Shakil Afridi’s brother, expressed frustration that the doctor’s case has not been resolved in more than eight years.
“President Trump and the U.S. government should have resolved this issue by now,” he told VOA.
Jamal Afridi said he last visited his brother, who he says has become very weak, July 6.
“He cannot rest during the day, nor can he sleep at night. He is in great pain,” he said.
U.S. officials have not said publicly if the two leaders will discuss Afridi’s case. But according to a statement released by the White House last week, both sides will discuss a host of issues, including counterterrorism and joint U.S.-Pakistan efforts to bring stability to the South Asian region.
Pakistani officials, however, did not rule out the possibility of Afridi’s case being raised.
Muhammad Faisal, Pakistan’s Foreign Office spokesperson, told VOA that all issues of mutual interest would be discussed between the two leaders.
“I cannot share the details, but all issues will be discussed,” he said.
Some U.S. experts agree.
“This is the type of a thing that you would expect President Trump to push, because you know he wants to be seen as a deal-maker who would want to make a deal,” Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Wilson Center, told VOA. “But the question is what the deal would look like.”
Who is Afridi?
Afridi helped the United States find bin Laden in 2011. He was later arrested by Pakistani authorities and has been in prison awaiting trial since then.
He reportedly used a fake vaccination program to try to obtain DNA samples from bin Laden’s family. U.S. officials have claimed Afridi was imprisoned for his role in helping the U.S. But Pakistan disputes that claim, alleging Afridi provided financial support to a local militant group.
At a conference in May that was attended by Pakistanis, U.S. Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman said the U.S. cannot ignore the fact that a Pakistani who helped the country find a terrorist is behind bars.
“We have chosen to ignore the fact that OBL [bin Laden] was just down the street from the military academy, but we can’t ignore the one best Pakistani who helped us find this terrorist is behind bars,” Sherman said, referring to Afridi.
Charges and trial
Afridi has not been officially charged with treason for helping the U.S in the bin Laden case. He has reportedly been accused under tribal law for helping militants in the nearby Khyber tribal region. In a tribal court, the law allows authorities to not present the defendant in court and limit the number of appeals.
If Afridi were to be charged with treason in a Pakistani court, he would have the right to public hearings and appeals up to the country’s Supreme Court. This would allow details of the bin Laden operation to be discussed publicly, something the government does not want, according to analysts.
But legal experts told VOA that Pakistan has so far failed to produce evidence against Afridi.
Farhad Afridi, a Pakistani lawyer who is unrelated to Shakil Afridi, maintains that Afridi’s continued imprisonment is unjustified.
“No evidences have been produced before the court regarding the charges leveled against him and under which the conviction of Dr. Shakil Afridi is granted,” the lawyer told VOA.
For several years, the media in Pakistan have speculated about a possible swap with the U.S. involving Afridi and Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist who is jailed in the U.S. on terrorism charges.
Siddiqui was convicted in 2010 by a federal jury in Manhattan on charges of trying to kill U.S. government personnel while she was in custody in Afghanistan. She was found guilty of attempted murder and six other charges stemming from a shooting at a police station in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province in 2008.
Experts doubt that such a swap would take place because of the strict U.S. laws pertaining to terrorists.
“I just don’t know if the Trump administration would be willing to swap, with regard to terrorists,” Kugelman said. “But again, you never know. We cannot rule out the possibility that it could be discussed.”
Jamil Afridi claims the civilian government in Pakistan is powerless, and that the fate of his brother can be decided only by the country’s powerful military.
“The army controls the prison, and the prison authorities follow their orders,” he said.
Some information in this report came from The Associated Press.