PESHAWAR, Pakistan — A doctor who helped the CIA hunt down Osama bin Laden was convicted Wednesday of conspiring against the state and sentenced to 33 years in prison, adding new strains to an already deeply troubled relationship between the United States and Pakistan.
US officials had urged Pakistan to release the doctor, who ran a vaccination program for the CIA to collect DNA and verify the Al Qaeda leader’s presence at the compound in the town of Abbottabad where US commandos killed him in May 2011 in a unilateral raid.
The lengthy sentence for Dr. Shakil Afridi will be taken as another sign of Pakistan’s defiance of American wishes. It could give more fuel to critics in the United States that Pakistan - which has yet to arrest anyone for helping shelter bin Laden - should no longer be treated as an ally.
The verdict came days after a NATO summit in Chicago that was overshadowed by tensions between the two countries that are threatening American hopes of an orderly end to the war in Afghanistan and withdrawal of its combat troops by 2014.
Islamabad was invited in expectation it would reopen supply lines for NATO and US troops to Afghanistan it has blocked for nearly six months to protest US airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani troops on the Afghan border. But it did not reopen the routes, and instead repeated demands for an apology from Washington for the airstrikes.
Pakistan’s treatment of Afridi since his arrest following the bin Laden raid has in many ways symbolized the gulf between Washington and Islamabad.
In the United States and other Western nations, Afridi was viewed as a hero who had helped eliminate the world’s most-wanted man. But Pakistan’s army and spy chiefs were outraged by the raid, which led to international suspicion that they had been harboring the Al Qaeda chief. In their eyes, Afridi was a traitor who had collaborated with a foreign spy agency in an illegal operation on its soil.
Afridi, in his 50s, was detained sometime after the raid, but the start of his trial was never publicized.
He was tried under the Frontier Crimes Regulations, or FCR - the set of laws that govern Pakistan’s semiautonomous tribal region. Human rights organizations have criticized the regulations for not providing suspects the right to legal representation, to present material evidence, or to cross-examine witnesses. Verdicts are handled by a government official in consultation with a council of elders.
Afridi was tried in the Khyber tribal region, where he was raised. In addition to the prison term, he was ordered to pay a fine of about $3,500 and is subject to an additional 3 1/2 years in prison if he does not, according to Nasir Khan, a government official in Khyber.
Afridi can appeal the verdict within two months, said Iqbal Khan, another Khyber government official.