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Back in the spotlight

Shamil ShamsMarch 18, 2015

The murder of Samiullah Afridi has highlighted the case of Shakil Afridi, an incarcerated Pakistani doctor who helped the US find bin Laden in 2011. Analysts say the mystery shrouding Afridi's case needs to be solved.

A Police stands guard outside the Peshawar High Court where the court adjounred the hearing into the case of Dr. Shakil Afridi, accused of running a fake vaccination campaign to get DNA of Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, on behest of United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), in Peshawar, Pakistan, 02 May 2013 (Photo: EPA/BILAWAL ARBAB +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++ )
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Despite the assassination claims by two separate Taliban splinter groups, analysts believe it is very difficult to identify the killers of Samiullah Afridi, a lawyer who was defending Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani doctor who helped the CIA hunt al Qaeda's former chief, Osama bin Laden. Samiullah had many enemies in Pakistan, including the various jihadist groups as well as the members of the country's security agencies.

Samiullah fled the country last year after receiving death threats, but recently returned to Pakistan. He was gunned down on Tuesday, March 17, while returning to his home in the outskirts of Peshawar, a turbulent northwestern Pakistani city.

"I took the case on humanitarian grounds, but now I have to look out for my own life, it is more important," Samiullah told the media last year.

Not many lawyers are ready to take up Afridi's case for fear of a backlash from the country's Islamists who consider the doctor a "US spy." The Islamic country's authorities, too, have kept the case under secret. Afridi was initially believed to have been arrested in connection with the bin Laden raid, but it was later claimed he was being held because of his alleged ties with a local Islamist warlord Mangal Bagh.

Shakil Afridi (Photo: Aqeel Ahmed/AP/dapd)
Human rights organizations demand a fair trial for AfridiImage: dapd

A largely ignored case

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.

"Shakil Afridi's case is still shrouded in mystery. In 2013, another lawyer for Afridi was murdered in Islamabad. Nobody knows who killed him. The mystery needs to be solved to understand why these killings are taking place," Adnan Bacha, a Peshawar-based journalist, told DW.

But Samiullah's assassination has once again highlighted Afridi's plight, which has been vastly neglected by the local and international media. The case is highly sensitive in Pakistan: Afridi's whereabouts are unknown, and rights activists claim that the doctor has not been given a chance to a fair trial. Pakistani activists also say that Afridi's trial was marred with legal inconsistencies as 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 believes 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 2014, Samiullah 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.

Afridi and Pakistan's anti-polio drive

The murder of Afridi's lawyer comes the same day a female polio worker and a policeman were killed in a militant attack in the restive northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The police said the assailants opened fire on polio workers when they were giving anti-polio inoculations to children.

The South Asian nation is one of the three places in the world, along with Afghanistan and Nigeria, where polio remains endemic. According to the country's health officials, the number of polio cases detected in Pakistan until 2014 year stood at 202. This was the highest figure in 15 years exceeding the previous record of 199 infections in 2001.

Pakistani security officials escort the heath workers as they administer Polio vaccination to children in Peshawar, Pakistan, 15 January 2013 (Photo: EPA/ARSHAD ARBAB +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++)
Rights activists have criticized the government for not providing security to health workersImage: picture-alliance/dpa

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.

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.