Is Pakistan trying to swap bin Laden doctor Afridi with Aafia Siddiqui? | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 18.01.2017
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Is Pakistan trying to swap bin Laden doctor Afridi with Aafia Siddiqui?

Pakistani officials have said that Shakil Afridi, an incarcerated doctor who allegedly helped the US find bin Laden in 2011, will not be released. Washington has been pressing Islamabad to release Afridi but to no avail.

Local media claimed that Pakistani authorities made an offer to US President Barack Obama that they would free Dr. Shakil Afridi in exchange for the release of Pakistani neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui, who was found guilty in 2010 by a New York court of trying to kill US servicemen in Afghanistan.

"A leading Pakistani newspaper did make this claim, however it can't be verified," Sattar Khan, DW's Islamabad correspondent, told DW, adding that despite repeated calls government ministers could not be contacted.

"I think the Pakistani government made this offer to appease its conservative voters who support Siddiqui," Khan underlined.

In May 2012, Afridi - the man who is believed to have 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 court. Pakistani authorities have since kept 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.

Aafia Siddiqui Mai 2004 (FBI)

Aafia Siddiqui's case remains full of mysteries

Observers say that the decision to imprison Afridi was legally flawed and was 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.

A 'traitor'

On Wednesday, January 18, Pakistani Law Minister Zahid Hamid said that Afridi would neither be released nor be handed over to the US, thus refuting the media claims about the proposed swap deal.

"Afridi worked against the law and our national interest, and the Pakistani government has repeatedly been telling the United States that under our law he committed a crime and was facing the law," Hamid was quoted as saying by "The Daily Times" newspaper.

But Sattar Khan said the authorities are still looking for some kind of a deal with Washington over Afridi's potential release.

"The government still wants to take up this issue with Donald Trump when he takes charge in Washington on January 20. But the chances of any agreement over Afridi are slim. It would be interesting to see how Pakistan would act to justify a deal after declaring Afridi a traitor," Khan told DW.

Bin Ladens Versteck in Abbottabad , Pakistan (Reuters)

Bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011 by US Special Forces in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad

No media attention

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.

In March 2015, Afridi's lawyer Samiullah Afridi was gunned down in the outskirts of Peshawar, a turbulent northwestern Pakistani city. Two separate Taliban splinter groups claimed responsibility for the murder.

In 2014, Samiullah Afridi complained that his client was not treated well in prison, and that he was being falsely implicated in a treason case by Pakistani authorities. Afridi himself demanded better conditions in jail in a letter that Samiullah 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?"

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 reached a compromise to improve relations with Islamabad," Shaikh told DW in an interview.

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 Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province bordering Afghanistan. They have also killed scores of vaccination workers in the past few years.

Additional reporting by Sattar Khan, DW's Islamabad correspondent.

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