PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - There can be few jail cells in Pakistan as lonely as the one occupied by Shakil Afridi, the doctor who helped the CIA hunt down Osama bin Laden.
He is kept in solitary confinement to protect him from hundreds of convicted militants eager to avenge their hero’s death. He may not be safe even from the guards - only two trusted officials are allowed to see him.
Beyond the walls, Afridi is as much a prisoner of Pakistan’s growing resentment of the United States as he is a victim of his own dalliance with high-stakes espionage.
No wonder then that he finds solace in the story of Younus in the Koran, almost identical to that of Jonah in the Old Testament, a prophet whose faith in God delivers him from the belly of a whale.
“My brother was confident that he will be released very soon. He said: ‘I‘m innocent, I’ve done nothing wrong,'” Afridi’s brother Jamil told Reuters in a recent interview after visiting the jail in the northwestern city of Peshawar.
“There is a prayer said by one of the famous prophets, when he was eaten by a fish,” Jamil added. “Dr Shakil is reciting that same prayer for his safety.”
The history of U.S. spycraft has seen few faster reversals of fortune than Afridi’s journey from a participant in one of the most dramatic covert operations of modern times to isolation in the forbidding confines of the colonial-era Peshawar Central Jail, with red-brick walls and watch towers.
A small-time country physician long dogged by allegations of medical malpractice, Afridi, now 48, was recruited by the CIA some years ago, according to several U.S. and Pakistani officials. One Pakistani intelligence source said he was talent-spotted while working in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Peshawar in 2009 and used to gather intelligence on militants in the border area.
Later, he was asked to scout bin Laden’s compound in the garrison town of Abbottabad, near the capital Islamabad, under the cloak of an anti-hepatitis campaign.
U.S. officials say Afridi provided important information on activity at the compound. Bin Laden was killed in a U.S. Navy SEAL raid in Abbottabad in May last year that was conducted without informing Pakistani authorities.
Three weeks later, Afridi was picked up, interrogated for months and, in May this year, sentenced to 33 years in jail.
When he was led to a warder’s office for the meeting with his brother on June 4, Afridi wore no shackles or handcuffs and was clad in the shalwar-kameez, the loose-fitting trousers and flowing shirt popular in Pakistan.
Jamil Afridi noticed he had gained weight - perhaps because conditions had improved since his transfer to the jail from detention centers used by intelligence agencies.
Jamil, a village schoolteacher, says he himself has been forced to adopt a rudimentary disguise, dark glasses and a cap, to ward off unwanted attention since appearing on TV to defend his younger sibling.
“My brother has become a victim of the U.S. game,” said Jamil, who spends much of his day worried that passersby are actually security agents tailing him. He used the term “angels” for the agents, as many Pakistanis do because they are believed to be everywhere but remain invisible.
“If my brother had really played a role for America, I think the Americans should have kept it secret.”
Afridi meanwhile has become a new irritant in the complex ties between Washington and Islamabad, that have been deteriorating over the past 18 months despite Pakistan’s pivotal role to U.S. interests in Afghanistan, counter-terrorism and nuclear security.
Afridi’s incarceration fueled suspicions in the Obama administration that elements in Pakistan secretly sympathized with the militants the United States is trying to catch. Pakistan’s failure to prosecute a single suspect accused of helping facilitate Bin Laden’s stay near a military academy in Abbottabad has only sharpened the rancor.
The day after Afridi was sentenced, the Senate expressed its anger by voting to dock Islamabad $33 million in aid - $1 million for every year of the term.
To Pakistan’s powerful military, which was enraged by the bin Laden raid, Afridi is a traitor. Critics in the tribal areas on the Afghan border say he deserves to be punished, not for helping the CIA but for his lack of scruples as a doctor.
Elders and former officials say he made money by performing unnecessary operations on unsuspecting villagers and that he was accused of sexual harassment by nurses.
Jamil Afridi dismisses the allegations as baseless. Some former colleagues have described Afridi as a diligent professional and U.S. officials have also leapt to his defense.
“Available information showed Afridi was a respected member of the Pakistani health care community,” said a senior U.S. official in Washington. “We are aware of efforts, put in place since Dr. Afridi’s arrest, to denigrate his character.”
U.S. officials say they offered to relocate Afridi and his family after the bin Laden raid, but that the doctor declined.
There was no way to independently confirm that account.
Jamil Afridi said he did not know whether his brother had received such an offer, but he believed Afridi would have been reluctant to take his two sons and a daughter out of Pakistan, where he had a stable job and his wife was working as the principal of a government college.
“He had a good future,” Jamil Afridi said. “Why would he move to the U.S. to live there?”
Naseem Bibi, a nurse who worked on his immunization drive in Abbottabad, also defended Afridi. “He was very nice to all the people in the team and did his job very diligently,” she said.
Shakil Afridi was born in a modest home in a village in southern Punjab, a vast flatland of wheat, rice and cotton fields that is Pakistan’s breadbasket.
Afridi’s father had retired to Punjab after serving as a sergeant in the Frontier Corps, a paramilitary unit deployed to protect Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. The family hailed from the Afridi tribe, part of the fiercely independent Pashtun community that straddles the frontier.
His grandfather, Mir Dast, had won the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest military award, in 1915 for valour at Ypres, Belgium, the site of some of the most intense fighting in World War 1.
Although the family was by no means wealthy, Jamil Afridi said his parents were the first in their village to obtain a refrigerator when electricity arrived there in the early 1960s.
A dedicated student, Shakil Afridi qualified as a doctor in Peshawar before taking a series of government jobs as a health officer in the rugged land of monumental landscapes and scattered villages hugging the Afghan border.
For years, Afridi was trailed by accusations that he had sought to make easy money by convincing patients to go under his scalpel for unnecessary procedures at his private clinic.
Mohammad Yousaf, an elder from Khyber, said his sister had suffered months of complications and remained bed-ridden after Afridi performed surgery to treat her fever.
“We are illiterate villagers and thought whatever the doctor advised would be good,” Yousaf said. “Dr Shakil used to advise surgery to every patient.”
Allegations of medical malpractice are not unusual in Pakistan’s tribal areas, and it is impossible to verify the validity of the claims.
What is certain is that Afridi rankled his superiors. “Keeping in view his extreme lust for money, I am ashamed to even call him a doctor. He is a corrupt, unreliable and low category officer,” wrote the author of a provincial health department report on his performance in March 2002.
In the rough-and-tumble tribal areas, where militants often hold greater sway than the government, the allegations came to the attention of Mangal Bagh, a bus driver-turned warlord who commands an armed group known as Lashkar-e-Islam.
Papers released by the tribal court that sentenced Afridi last month said he had been found guilty of aiding the group, and not for treason for his role in helping the CIA, as Pakistani officials had initially stated.
Laskhar-e-Islam, which does nothing to hide its contempt for Afridi, has denied the court’s finding. The group said it would try the doctor itself under Shariah law for working with the CIA to find bin Laden.
Laskhar-e-Islam does, however, acknowledge that its fighters kidnapped Afridi for several days in April 2008 to investigate the allegations of medical malpractice made by locals.
“He was not a surgeon but conducted surgeries and deprived many people of their body organs,” said Abdur Rashid Lashkari, spokesman for Lashkar-e-Islam.
Jamil Afridi said his brother had been forced to pay a one million rupee (now about $10,650) ransom to Lashkar-e-Islam to secure his release and rejected the allegations that his brother had performed improper surgeries.
The year after that ordeal, Afridi decided to visit the United States, a vacation that seemed to lodge an admiration for the country in his mind.
In a move that perhaps suggests he was facing some financial strain, Afridi sold his car and a plot of land near Peshawar to fund the trip, his brother said.
He returned with fond memories. “He would tell us that people were so good in the U.S.,” Jamil Afridi said.
Afridi was approached by the CIA through an Afghan agent while he was working at the Shamshatoo camp near Peshawar for refugees from Afghanistan in 2009, according to the Pakistani intelligence source, although the claim could not be independently verified.
It seems likely that Afridi would have been a prize catch for CIA agents desperate for an informant who could move freely in the tribal areas, a global hub for militant groups and al-Qaeda fighters that is virtually sealed to outsiders.
As the operation to find bin Laden gathered pace, Afridi was set to work organizing an immunization drive in Abbottabad, 155 km east (95 miles) of Peshawar, the site of the compound where U.S. officials suspected he was hiding.
The aim was to obtain DNA samples from children living in bin Laden’s compound to prove their father’s identity, according to a former Pakistani security official.
Accompanied by three health workers, Afridi went to bin Laden’s house and told his wives that an anti-hepatitis drive was underway in the area, the former security official said. He took cheek swabs from the children under the pretext of the campaign.
“A woman went in (to the house) and said ‘bring the children out, the doctor is waiting and he will give them the drops’,” the former official said. “That’s when he used the swabs.”
It was unclear whether the CIA used the swabs to determine if the children were bin Laden‘s. But the doctor did provide intelligence on tight security arrangements at the house.
The raid that killed bin Laden sent shockwaves through Pakistan. The government was at a loss to explain how the al Qaeda chief could have been hiding in Abbottabad, or how U.S. helicopters had managed to slip into the country undetected.
As Pakistani intelligence agents scrambled to decipher what had happened in the months leading up the raid, the net began to close on Afridi.
Intelligence officers learned that a doctor had visited the bin Laden compound, and got Afridi’s name from district medical authorities. On May 23, Afridi was picked up while driving to his home in Peshawar.
A convoy of three double cabin pickup trucks forced his car to a halt and black-clad security agents jumped out and began to rifle through the doctors’ identity cards, according to an account of the arrest by his brother.
“This is the one,” said one of the security men and Afridi was blindfolded and taken to an anonymous holding cell.
Afridi had seemed oblivious to the dangers of falling into the hands of Pakistan’s notorious intelligence services. His brother said Afridi was preparing for the sacred haj pilgrimage along with his wife and had paid a deposit for the journey.
Instead, he found himself languishing in jail, unable to reach out to the U.S. agents who used him in the closing stages of one of the longest and most expensive manhunts in history.
Afridi’s lawyers, who talk strategy in their cramped office in a partly disused building in Peshawar’s run-down commercial district, have lodged an appeal against his sentencing.
But there seems little prospect of a quick end to their client’s ordeal. Jamil Afridi, who appeared on Pakistani television to defend his brother, says his own eight children now fear for his safety.
“For the first time when they saw me on different TV channels they were crying and telling me: ‘We have already lost our uncle,'” he said. “‘If we lose you, what will happen to us?'”
Additional reporting by Jibran Ahmad in PESHAWAR and Mark Hosenball in WASHINGTON; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan