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In the name of justice

Shamil ShamsNovember 30, 2012

Pakistani officials have denied reports that Afridi - the detained Pakistani doctor who helped the CIA hunt down bin Laden - was on hunger strike. Analysts, however, say that he might take 'drastic steps' to get noticed.

Pakistani doctor Shakil Afridi (Photo: Aqeel Ahmed/AP/dapd)
Image: dapd

In May, Dr. Shakil Afridi - the man who assisted the United States in discovering the whereabouts of al Qaeda's former chief Osama bin Laden - was sentenced to 33 years in prison for treason by a Pakistani tribal court. Pakistani authorities have since kept Dr. Shakil Afridi in solitary confinement in a secret prison. Only few officials can meet or talk to him. Afridi is not allowed to speak to his family or the media.

Bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011 by US Special Forces in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad in a covert operation. The Pakistani government claims that prior to bin Laden's assassination, Afridi had been working as a spy for the US' Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), distributing fake vaccinations in Abbottabad in the hopes of finding a sample of bin Laden's DNA.

Observers say that the decision to imprison Afridi was legally flawed and more of a punishment for helping the CIA find the al Qaeda leader, which eventually strained Pakistan's ties with the US.

For years, Pakistan had denied having any knowledge on the whereabouts of bin Laden - at the time, the world's most-wanted terrorist. That bin Laden was discovered in Abbottabad close to PMA Kakul, the Pakistani army's prestigious military academy, caused much embarrassment to both the military and civilian leadership of Pakistan.

Contradictory claims

Prison officials in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar told Reuters on condition of anonymity that Afridi had begun a "hunger strike for an indefinite period" because he was not allowed to have visitors nor speak to anyone on the telephone as "punishment for a media interview he gave in September."

A police officer walks past Central Jail in Peshawar June 21, 2012 (Photo: REUTERS/Fayaz Aziz)
Human rights organizations demand a fair trial for AfridiImage: Reuters

"After the interview in which Dr. Shakil Afridi leveled serious allegations against the country's top spy agency [Inter-Services Intelligence, ISI], the prison authorities barred his family members and lawyers from meeting him," the prison official said on Thursday. "In protest, Afridi has begun a hunger strike for an indefinite period."

Afridi's brother also confirmed the reports, saying that his brother was protesting against conditions in jail.

But a BBC report cites Peshawar's Central Jail's assistant superintendent, Ayub Khan, who claims that Afridi was not on a hunger strike. Khan told the BBC that he had seen Afridi eating in his cell.

"Last resort"

Irrespective of the authenticity of Afridi's hunger strike, observers say that the plight of Afridi has largely been ignored in local and international media, and that he has not been given a chance to a fair trial. Pakistani rights activists say that Afridi's trial was marred with legal inconsistencies. They also say that the evidence presented against Afridi consisted mostly of reports compiled by Pakistan's security agencies and that it was not strong enough.

"The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has already said that every citizen has the right to due legal process, which was certainly not given to Afridi," prominent Pakistani human rights activist Asma Jahangir told DW.

Satellite image provided by DigitalGlobe shows the compound, center left, in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden lived. (Photo: AP/DigitalGlobe)
Bin Laden's assassination put a strain on US-Pakistani tiesImage: AP Photo/DigitalGlobe

Iqbal Haider, the late Pakistani law minister also agreed: "Tribal courts do not meet the end of justice. That trial is of no lawful effect and that is denying him the legal right and protection of values that are guaranteed under the constitution of Pakistan."

Dr. Riaz Shaikh, a political analyst in Karachi, told DW that even civil society activists were afraid of "the wrath of the establishment," and that they were thus not campaigning for Afridi. Shaikh was of the view that even the apex court of Pakistan was not ready to take up the doctor's case because it had "certain limitations" when it came to matters of national security. He said that the international community, too, had stopped pursuing Afridi's case.

"The US initially put pressure on the Pakistani government to release Afridi but I think it has compromised on it to improve relations with Islamabad," Shaikh said.

Analysts say that Afridi might have taken the step as a last resort of starting a hunger strike because he felt that there was no other way for his case to get public attention.