There has been increased speculation over the fate of Shakil Afridi – the doctor who helped track al-Qaeda supremo Osama bin Laden to a housing compound in Abbottabad in northern Pakistan in 2011.
Reports in the international media quoting Afridi’s lawyer have claimed that the jailed physician may be released this month and possibly free to relocate to the United States.
The government has said nothing about whether Dr Afridi’s jail term is set to end, but a top official told reporters late last week that the doctor would not be given to US officials. “On behalf of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I can assure you that he is not being handed over to the US,” spokesman Dr Muhammad Faisal said.
Days after the initial BBC report on Afridi, the doctor was unexpectedly airlifted from the central jail in Peshawar to Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi under strict security. However, the government has made no statement to explain why.
Talking to Asia Times, an official at the Peshawar Central Prison said that a contingent of army and police went to the jail early on Friday and cordoned off the entire building plus the road leading to the jail. “No one was allowed to leave or enter the building while they whisked Dr Shakil Afridi away to some unknown destination,” he said. A police source said Afridi was driven straight to the Army headquarters and put in an army helicopter that flew him to Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi.
The shifting of Afridi follows a report in the Moscow-based Sputnik News agency, which claimed that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) foiled a bid by the CIA to organize a prison break to get Afridi released from the Peshawar jail.
Faisal, the Foreign Affairs spokesman, said he was “not aware of any deal regarding Shakil Afridi”. In regard to the claim that the CIA might attempt to rescue Afridi from jail in Pakistan, the spokesman said the Interior Ministry was looking into the matter.
Meanwhile, Afridi’s lawyer sought to clarify his remarks suggesting his client may soon be released. “I did not say he is being released, as the statements attributed to me suggested. The local and international press quoted me out of context and conveyed a wrong impression of what I said. I just made comments about Afridi’s 33-year jail term, which could come to an end this month if the authorities so desire,” lawyer Qamar Nadeem told the Asia Times.
He said Afridi was remanded in custody for a “consecutive” term of 33 years after being convicted under four sections of law, three carrying a 10-year punishment and one a three-year sentence. Later, the judicial authorities set aside one section, which reduced the total jail term to 23 years. “Now, if the government wants, they can convert his punishment to a ‘concurrent term’ from ‘consecutive term’, which means that he would serve all the sentences at the same time. So, his 33-year sentence would be over in 10 years – and he would be up for release in a few weeks,” the lawyer explained.
After Afridi was shifted to the jail in Rawalpindi, which is seen as a “safer” place to hold the high-profile prisoner, Senate chairman Sadiq Sanjrani summoned the Defense and Interior ministers to brief members of the upper house of parliament. Opposition members led by Pakistan People’s Party Senator Mian Raza Rabbani, a former Senate chairman, assailed the Foreign office for shifting the responsibility to the Interior ministry on alleged plan to break Afridi out of jail. The senators staged a walkout from the upper house when none of the ministers turned up for a briefing on Monday.
In the midst of this drama, Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal was shot on Sunday in an apparent assassination attempt. The gunman was linked to a new ultra-religious Muslim party.
Media outlets in Pakistan carried prominent reports about the supposed CIA plan to get Afridi out of the jail in Peshawar. But some observers believe the doctor who conducted a phony vaccination campaign in Abbottabad to collect DNA samples of Osama bin Laden’s family will be freed by the end of this month.
“All indications are that Afridi will get out of prison in the next few weeks as it is the most important step that could lead to normalization of relations between Pakistan and US,” Muhammad Ilyas Khan, a senior BBC correspondent told Asia Times.
Khan said Afridi could not live in the country due to security problems and would eventually be moved to the US, which would fulfill a demand from the Trump administration.
And this would boost relations with the US at a time when the Pakistani economy is in dire straits.