Jamil Afridi, the elder brother of jailed Pakistani doctor Shakil Afridi speaks during an interview with AFP at an undisclosed location in Pakistan in April 2016. Photo: AFP / SS Mirza

The “fall guy” who helped the CIA track down and kill Osama Bin Laden back in 2011 may be released in return for an Al Qaeda undercover operative currently serving life in a prison in Texas. US media, quoting the State Department and Dr Shakil Afridi’s attorney, intimate he might soon be free.

Afridi, who is incarcerated in Central Jail, Peshawar, under strict security, ran a fake hepatitis vaccination program in collusion with the CIA in order to confirm 9/11 mastermind bin Laden’s presence in the city of Abbottabad by obtaining DNA samples. The operation led to bin Laden’s assassination on May 2, 2011, in a midnight raid by US Navy Seals.

Immediately after they stormed his compound – just a stone’s throw from Pakistan’s Military Academy – and killed the Al Qaeda leader, Dr Afridi was arrested by the Pakistani authorities for violating the “sovereignty of the country.” He was later sentenced to 33 years’ imprisonment on charges of “colluding” with the banned militant outfit Lashkar-i-Islam, however, with the original sovereignty breach charge against him dropped by what was to all intents and purposes a “kangaroo court” in the Khyber Agency tribal area.

Afridi is projected as a scoundrel by the Pakistani authorities, whereas in the US he is viewed as a hero. Despite persistent US pressure for his release, the Pakistani government has been reluctant to budge on the issue – until recently.

In the past few weeks, there has been an uptick in “backdoor” maneuvering to secure Afridi’s emancipation, as stalled negotiations between US and Pakistani officials have been jolted back to life.

An Asia Times source in the Pakistan foreign office has confirmed that the country will seek the release of Dr Aafia Siddiqui – an MIT-trained Pakistani scientist who in 2010 was sentenced to 84 years in prison on seven counts of attempt murder and assault of US personnel and is currently languishing in a Texas jail – in a swap for Afridi.

Osama bin Laden in June 1999. Photo courtesy of AFP

On May 19, Fox News, citing an official in Islamabad, reported a “renewed willingness to figure out an appropriate time and means to have the doctor discharged.” The news channel claimed there was a lot of “backroom dealing” between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Pakistan Army on the matter. With Pakistani and US authorities negotiating concessions, Fox intimated a release may be possible in around three to four months.

Earlier, the Wall Street Journal reported on May 16 that US President Donald Trump’s administration had spoken “with Pakistan about the prospect of freeing a doctor who helped the US mission to find Osama bin Laden, and whose imprisonment in Pakistan has been a thorn in relations between the longtime allies.”

The paper also reported, on May 18, that Afridi’s lawyers are hopeful of being able to present an appeal in this case, after three years of postponements.

Closer co-operation

A former advisor to Pakistan’s Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs, Tariq Fatemi, said in February that Pakistan was willing to hold negotiations with the Trump administration over Afridi’s release. “We will handle this issue within the parameters of our legal system but at the same time we don’t want to become an irritant for anyone; it is not the purpose of our legal proceedings,” he was quoted as saying.

According to senior Pakistani official quoted in the May 16 Wall Street Journal article, Pakistan, which resisted the Obama administration’s persistent efforts to secure Afridi’s release, is looking for a better relationship with the US under Trump.

The US State Department iterated in a media briefing on May 18 that the new administration will continue to press for the release of Afridi. “We believe Dr Afridi has been unjustly imprisoned and we have clearly communicated our position to Pakistan both in public and in private and will continue to raise this issue at the highest levels during discussions with Pakistan’s leadership.”

In 2012, the US offered Pakistan a “prisoner exchange” plan for Dr Afridi’s release but the offer was rejected due to a want of “consensus” on the issue. The matter was again was raised in 2015 when high-level talks between US and Pakistani officials to facilitate his release were started but negotiations again broke. Key military and intelligence sources were quoted by Fox News as saying the release of Shakil Afridi was “too complex” an issue and “too politically sensitive” to be considered, even as part of a prisoner swap.

In April last year, soon after winning election, Trump caused an uproar in Pakistan by announcing “I would get Afridi out in two minutes because we give a lot of aid to Pakistan, we give a lot of money to Pakistan.” In a knee-jerk reaction, Pakistan’s Interior Ministry replied that the decision to release Afridi would be taken by the courts and the government and “not by anyone else.”

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