Pakistan details doctor’s role in bin Laden case
By Richard Leiby
Such details have emerged in a recently publicised Pakistani intelligence report supposedly based on the interrogations of Shakil Afridi, the imprisoned physician who has been lauded in Washington as a hero for his role in the operation that led to the al-Qaeda chief’s killing but is branded a traitor in Pakistan.
“He met 25 times with foreign secret agents, received instructions and provided sensitive information to them,” says the investigative report, which was filed by prosecutors on Wednesday in a tribal appeals court where Mr Afridi is seeking to overturn his 33-year sentence. “The accused was aware that he was working against Pakistan.”
The narrative laid out in the report could not be independently verified. The interrogations that it purports to summarise were carried out under a tribal judicial system in which Mr Afridi had no counsel and could not challenge the evidence against him.
“There is no evidence – only the prosecution investigation report, which under the law has no legal value,”Samiullah Afridi, Mr Afridi’s attorney, said on Thursday.
Shakil Afridi lived in the semi-autonomous Khyber Agency in Pakistan’s north-west, which the government said put him under the jurisdiction of tribal administrative officials who are also empowered to act as a court. The prison term incensed US lawmakers, who at one point cut $1m in aid for Pakistan for every year of the sentence. Obama administration officials have called on Pakistan to release Mr Afridi.
Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate detained the doctor three weeks after US commandos killed bin Laden in May 2011. A year later, he was sentenced for crimes against the state that allegedly included assisting a banned militant group; the bin Laden operation was not mentioned at the time.
But in the new prosecution report, investigators say Mr Afridi played a “central role” in the raid on the terrorist leader’s compound. The operation “humiliated Pakistan around the world”, it adds.
US officials acknowledge that the CIA used Mr Afridi, 48, to run a hepatitis vaccination programme as a ruse, hoping to find a match for bin Laden’s DNA and thereby verify the al-Qaeda leader’s presence in Abbottabad, the garrison town where he hid for six years.
The report says Mr Afridi received about $61,000 for the operation in Abbottabad, as well as substantial sums for previous work that involved hepatitis B vaccination campaigns in other areas.
Mr Afridi allegedly told interrogators that a lunch with an official from the Save the Children charity in 2008 led to his first meeting with “Kate” in an upscale Islamabad neighbourhood. Eventually the doctor would deal with three other handlers: a man whose name is spelled Toni in the report, Sara and Sue (also spelled Suee).
The intelligence operatives used five or six pick-up points in Islamabad, including gas stations and a popular bookstore, the report says, and the routine with the back-seat blanket continued until December 2010. After that, Mr Afridi rode normally in his handlers’ SUVs.
The intelligence operatives took their asset to undisclosed locations where he was interviewed in what he called “containers”. These units were fitted out with flat-panel televisions, air conditioning and refrigerators, the account said.
While some media reports say Mr Afridi collected DNA through mouth swabs, the interrogation document says 1,000 units of hepatitis vaccine were to be dispensed via syringes. The campaign was aimed at women between 15 and 45 years old, it says.
Mr Afridi said he was told to return the vaccination kits to Islamabad.
The handlers gave Mr Afridi a laptop computer and a “radio set”, the latter apparently a satellite phone of some sort, before he went to work in Abbottabad. The doctor recruited female health workers to attempt to gain access to a “prominent house” in one neighbourhood whose occupants had refused to co-operate with the campaign.
The three-storey villa turned out to be bin Laden’s hideout. But US officials have said Mr Afridi never succeeded in collecting any DNA from residents of the compound.
According to the interrogation report, a few days after the May 2 2011 raid, “Sue” summoned Mr Afridi to Islamabad and told him his life was in danger because of the vaccination campaign. She advised him to flee to Afghanistan and gave him two phone numbers.
When Mr Afridi reached a certain bus terminal in Kabul, his instructions went, he was to call the first number and wait for someone to pick him up. If nobody came, he should use the second number.
Sue’s aim, the report says, was to get the doctor into “safe hands”.
But Mr Afridi told interrogators that he had decided against going.
“I did not feel I had any involvement in the killing of Osama bin Laden,” the report quotes him as saying.