The 33-year prison sentence handed out to the doctor who helped the US trace Osama bin Laden's hideout has met with severe criticism in Pakistan. The country has asked the US to "respect" its court's decision.
On May 2, 2011, US Marines soldiers killed Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in his hideout in Pakistan's Abbottabad. For some months before that, Dr. Shakil Afridi had been working as a spy for the CIA, faking vaccinations around the neighbourhood in Abbottabad in the hope of finding DNA samples of bin Laden. After bin Laden's death, Afridi was tried for treason.
On Wednesday, a court in Pakistan's Khyber region sentenced him to 33 years in prison and a fine of $ 3,500. According to Iqbal Khan, an official in the Khyber region, Afridi can appeal against this sentence in the next two months. A spokesman for Pakistan's foreign ministry, Moazzam Ali Khan, said, " I think as far as the case of Mr Afridi is concerned, it was in accordance with Pakistani laws and by the Pakistani courts, and we need to respect each other's legal processes."
A questionable trial
However, several human rights activists have criticized the sentence handed down by the tribal court. Iqbal Haider, former law minister in Pakistan and an advocate in the country's supreme court questions the charges. He says, "Pakistan and the world are against al Qaeda. Even if the charge is right, it does not amount to any violation of Pakistani law or treason or war against Pakistan. The defence minister, Ahmed Mukhtar claimed this month that the government knew about the US operation against Osama bin Laden and it took place with the consent and help of the government in Pakistan." If this is the stance of the government of Pakistan, then no tribal court can even prosecute Shakil Afridi, Haider argues.
Furthermore, activists are also questioning the validity of the sentence because it was not imposed by a regular court. He says, "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."
Afridi was tried under the Frontier Crimes Regulations, the set of laws that are implemented in Pakistan's tribal areas. Allegedly, these laws prevented Afridi from the right to legal representation, to present material evidence or to cross-question witnesses. Haider points out that the tribal areas do not have formal courts. Laws are administered through jirgas, which have been declared as unconstitutional by the supreme court and the high courts in Pakistan.
A strain on relations
The US has condemned the decision and asked for Afridi's release. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in an interview that Afridi had been "very helpful" in the operation to find bin Laden and that it was a "real mistake" on Pakistan's part to take this kind of action against Afridi.
However, analysts believe that this may be Pakistan's way of getting back at the US, especially after President Zardari was snubbed by US President Barack Obama at the NATO summit that recently concluded in Chicago. According to Talat Masood, a retired Pakistan army general, the Khyber court's verdict could be seen as a reflection of Pakistan's annoyance after the NATO meeting and it is likely that Afridi will be pardoned as soon as relations between the two allies are back on track. This, however, seems a long way off, especially after US drone strikes in Pakistani territory have killed over 14 people in the past few days.
Author: Manasi Gopalakrishnan(AFP, dpa)
Editor: Grahame Lucas