The controversy over the Pakistani doctor who helped the CIA trace Osama Bin Laden and was subsequently jailed for 33 years took a new twist when it was claimed that the physician had turned down the chance to relocate to US. It also emerged the doctor was convicted last week of alleged links to militants, rather than assisting American intelligence.
Two US officials quoted by Reuters said that shortly before last year's 2 May raid by US special forces in the town of Abottabad, Dr Shakil Afridi and his family were offered the chance to leave Pakistan but declined. A few weeks after the raid, the doctor was arrested by the Pakistani authorities and was last week jailed for 33 years during a court session held in camera.
Before he was arrested, Dr Afridi was offered opportunities to leave Pakistan with his family but he turned those down, one of the US officials said. "Some may question why he did this but no one, including the doctor, could have foreseen that Pakistan would punish so severely someone whose work benefited the country so much," the official said.
The claim by US officials in Washington comes amid a flurry of conflicting reports about the doctor recruited by the CIA and tasked with carrying out fake vaccinations in an attempt to obtain DNA from Bin Laden's children to confirm the identity of those living in the compound. While he was ultimately unsuccessful, officials have said one of the nurses contracted by Dr Afridi was able to obtain a phone number belonging to one of the al-Qa'ida leader's couriers. This proved to be crucial in leading the CIA to the hideout.
Yesterday, Pakistani media revealed a five-page court document appearing to show that contrary to widespared claims made last week that Dr Afridi had been convicted of treason for helping the CIA, he had in fact been found guilty of having links to a militant outfit, Lashkar-i-Islam, and its leader Mangal Bagh.
The court in the Khyber tribal region, operating under the British-era Frontier Crimes Regulations, said that Bagh had been paid £14,000 by Dr Afridi, whose affection for the warlord "and association with him was an open secret". It also said there was evidence that Dr Afridi had co-operated with a foreign intelligence agency and that another court should investigate such allegations. In another report, Pakistani officials described Dr Afridi as a hard-drinking womaniser who had been accused of theft and harassment. Yet another report, by the Agence France-Presse, quoted a health official who dismissed the allegations.
The flurry of reports might suggest that Pakistani authorities are trying to smear the name of Dr Afridi amid intense criticism from the US over the conviction and jailing of the doctor. The US has insisted the physician was aiding Pakistan as he was helping in the hunt for a militant leader whom the authorities in Islamabad were either unable or unwilling to locate.
Last week, US Senators cut $33m (£21m) in aid to Pakistan in a response to the jailing. It amounted to $1m for every year of his sentence.
The Senate Appropriations Committee voted unanimously to make the cut. "It's arbitrary, but the hope is that Pakistan will realise we are serious," said Senator Richard Durbin, the Senate's second-highest-ranking Democrat. The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, called the doctor's jailing "unjust and unwarranted" and vowed to press the case with Islamabad.
Dr Afridi's family have defended him and dismissed allegations of treason. They are also concerned about his safety. His brother, Jamil Afridi, said efforts were already underway to launch an appeal against the conviction. In a message passed to The Independent through an intermediary, Jamil Afridi said: "I've categorically said that he is not guilty. That is why we are pleading the case. Moreover, Dr Afridi had a US visa and had visited USA also. If he were guilty he could have left Pakistan and stayed in the US, which he did not do."