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Dr Shakeel Afridi, from CIA asset to solitary cell

26 June, 2012

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PESHAWAR: There can be few jail cells in Pakistan as lonely as the one occupied by Shakeel Afridi, the doctor who helped the CIA hunt down Osama bin Laden.

He is kept in solitary confinement to protect him from hundreds of convicted terrorists eager to avenge their hero's death. He may not be safe even from the guards – only two trusted officials are allowed to see him.

Beyond the walls, Afridi is as much a prisoner of Pakistan's growing resentment of the United States as he is a victim of his own dalliance with high-stakes espionage.

No wonder then that he finds solace in the story of Hazrat Younus in the holy Quran, a prophet whose faith in God delivers him from the belly of a whale.

"My brother was confident that he would be released very soon. He said, 'I'm innocent, I've done nothing wrong,'" Afridi's brother Jamil told Reuters in a recent interview after visiting the jail in Peshawar. "There is a prayer said by one of the famous prophets, when he was eaten by a fish," Jamil added. "Dr Shakeel is reciting that same prayer for his safety."

The history of US spycraft has seen few faster reversals of fortune than Afridi's journey from a participant in one of the most dramatic covert operations of modern times to isolation in the forbidding confines of the colonial-era Peshawar Central Jail, with red-brick walls and watch towers.

A small-time country physician long dogged by allegations of medical malpractice, Afridi, now 48, was recruited by the CIA some years ago, according to several US and Pakistani officials. One Pakistani intelligence source said he was talent-spotted while working in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Peshawar in 2009 and used to gather intelligence on terrorists in the border area. Later, he was asked to scout bin Laden's compound in the garrison town of Abbottabad, under the cloak of an anti-hepatitis campaign.

US officials say Afridi provided important information on activity at the compound. Bin Laden was killed in a US Navy SEAL raid in Abbottabad in May last year that was conducted without informing Pakistani authorities.

Three weeks later, Afridi was picked up, interrogated for months and, in May this year, sentenced to 33 years in jail.

When he was led to a warder's office for the meeting with his brother on June 4, Afridi wore no shackles or handcuffs and was clad in a shalwar kameez.

Jamil Afridi noticed he had gained weight – perhaps because conditions had improved since his transfer to the jail from detention centres used by intelligence agencies.

Jamil, a village schoolteacher, says he himself has been forced to adopt a rudimentary disguise, dark glasses and a cap, to ward off unwanted attention since appearing on TV to defend his younger sibling.

"My brother has become a victim of the US game," said Jamil, who spends much of his day worried that passersby are actually security agents tailing him. He used the term "angels" for the agents, as many Pakistanis do because they are believed to be everywhere but remain invisible.

"If my brother had really played a role for America, I think the Americans should have kept it secret."

Afridi meanwhile has become a new irritant in the complex ties between Washington and Islamabad, that have been deteriorating over the past 18 months despite Pakistan's pivotal role to US interests in Afghanistan, counter-terrorism and nuclear security.

Afridi's incarceration fueled suspicions in the Obama administration that elements in Pakistan secretly sympathised with the terrorists the United States is trying to catch. Pakistan's failure to prosecute a single suspect accused of helping facilitate bin Laden's stay in Abbottabad has only sharpened the rancour.

To Pakistan's military, which was enraged by the bin Laden raid, Afridi is a traitor. Critics in the Tribal Areas on the Afghan border say he deserves to be punished, not for helping the CIA but for his lack of scruples as a doctor.

Elders and former officials say he made money by performing unnecessary operations on unsuspecting villagers and that he was accused of sexual harassment by nurses.

Jamil Afridi dismisses the allegations as baseless. Some former colleagues have described Afridi as a diligent professional and US officials have also leapt to his defence.

"Available information showed Afridi was a respected member of the Pakistani healthcare community," said a senior US official in Washington. "We are aware of efforts, put in place since Dr Afridi's arrest, to denigrate his character."

US officials say they offered to relocate Afridi and his family after the bin Laden raid, but that the doctor declined. There was no way to independently confirm that account.

Jamil Afridi said he did not know whether his brother had received such an offer, but he believed Afridi would have been reluctant to take his two sons and a daughter out of Pakistan, where he had a stable job and his wife was working as the principal of a government college.

"He had a good future," Jamil Afridi said. "Why would he move to the US to live there?"

Naseem Bibi, a nurse who worked on his immunisation drive in Abbottabad, also defended Afridi. "He was very nice to all the people in the team and did his job very diligently," she said.

Afridi's lawyers, who talk strategy in their cramped office in a partly disused building in Peshawar, have lodged an appeal against his sentencing. But there seems little prospect of a quick end to their client's ordeal.

End.

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