CIA′s Pakistani helper seeks better conditions in jail | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 02.12.2013
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CIA's Pakistani helper seeks better conditions in jail

Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani doctor who helped the CIA find Osama bin Laden, has demanded better conditions in jail and greater access to his lawyer. Observers say Afridi has not been given a chance to a fair trial.

The lawyer of Dr. Shakil Afridi, the man who assisted the United States in finding the whereabouts of al Qaeda's former chief Osama bin Laden, complains that his client is not treated well in prison, and that Afridi is being falsely implicated in a treason case by Pakistani authorities.

In May 2012, Afridi was sentenced to 33 years in prison for treason, but a court in the northwestern city of Peshawar overturned the ruling in August and ordered a retrial. Pakistani authorities have since kept him in solitary confinement in a secret prison. Only few officials can meet or talk to the doctor. Afridi is not allowed to speak to his family or the media. A tribunal is set to hear his appeal on December 9.

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.

Policemen stand guard near the partially demolished compound where al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed by US special forces last May, in Abbottabad February 26, 2012 (Photo: REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood)

Bin Laden's assassination put a strain on US-Pakistani ties

For years, Pakistan denied having any knowledge of the whereabouts of bin Laden - at the time, the world's most-wanted terrorist. That the former al Qaeda leader 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.

Afridi has now demanded better conditions in jail in a letter that his attorney Samiullah Afridi has presented to the media. "I have been arrested and implicated in a false case," Afridi said in the letter. "I am perhaps the first Pakistani who has been denied access to his lawyer. What kind of justice is this?"

'Rights denied'

"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 in an interview.

Rights activists say that Afridi's case is highly sensitive and shrouded in mystery because of the involvement of the US and Pakistani spy agencies in it.

Riaz Shaikh, a political analyst in Karachi, is of the view that even the apex court of Pakistan is not ready to take up the doctor's case because it has "certain limitations" when it comes to matters of national security. He says that the international community, too, has 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 told DW.

Drive against polio

Afridi's case has also had a negative impact on Pakistan's drive against polio. The Pakistani Taliban say the polio eradication campaigns in the country are un-Islamic and are being used by the US as a cover for spying. The militant Islamists have blocked anti-polio inoculations in the restive tribal region of Waziristan and some other parts of the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province bordering Afghanistan. They have also killed several vaccination workers.

Vaccination problems have led to a rise in polio cases in Pakistan. In 2011, Pakistan recorded 198 cases of the disease - the highest number in a decade. Polio is also endemic in neighboring Afghanistan.

A polio worker administers polio vaccine to a child, in Peshawar, the provincial capital of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, Pakistan, 24 October 2013 (Photo: EPA/ARSHAD ARBAB)

Rights activists have criticized the government for not providing security to health workers

Shahnaz Wazir Ali, an advisor to former Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf, told DW that the Afridi affair had made it difficult for the authorities to conduct this campaign.

"People think that agents like Dr. Shakil Afridi work in polio immunization teams, and that might put their lives at risk," she said, adding that the anti-polio campaigns did not involve blood and DNA tests.

For his part, Wajahat Malik, an Islamabad-based social activist and filmmaker, believes that since the Afridi incident, "the polio eradication campaign has lost its credibility in Pakistan." Pakistan is rife with conspiracy theories, he told DW.

Despite several appeals by the government where it has emphasized that its drive against polio has nothing to do with Afridi, people have so far refused to cooperate with the authorities.