PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistani authorities have sentenced a doctor accused of helping the CIA find Osama bin Laden to 33 years in jail on charges of treason, officials said, a move almost certain to further strain ties between Washington and Islamabad.
Shakil Afridi was accused of running a fake vaccination campaign, in which he collected DNA samples, that is believed to have helped the American intelligence agency track down bin Laden in a Pakistani town.
The al Qaeda chieftain was killed in a unilateral U.S. special forces raid in the town of Abbottabad in May last year.
“Dr Shakil has been sentenced to 33 years imprisonment and a fine of 320,000 Pakistani rupees ($3,477),” said Mohammad Nasir, a government official in the northwestern city of Peshawar, where the jail term will be served. He gave no further details.
Afridi is the first person to be sentenced by Pakistani authorities in the bin Laden case.
The sentence was handed down under tribal laws, which unlike the national penal code, do not carry the death penalty for treason.
U.S. officials were strongly critical of the sentencing.
“Without commenting on specific individuals, anyone who helped the United States find bin Laden was working against al Qaeda and not against Pakistan,” said Pentagon spokesman George Little.
Bin Laden’s long presence in Pakistan — he was believed to have stayed there for years — despite the worldwide manhunt for him raised suspicions in Washington that Pakistani intelligence officials may have sheltered him.
Pakistani officials deny this and say an intelligence gap enabled bin Laden to live here undetected.
No one has yet been charged for helping the al Qaeda leader take refuge in Pakistan. A government commission tasked with investigating how he managed to evade capture by Pakistani authorities for so long is widely accused of being ineffective.
Afridi’s imprisonment will almost certainly anger ally Washington at a sensitive time, with both sides engaged in difficult talks over re-opening NATO supply routes to U.S.-led troops in Afghanistan.
Senior U.S. officials had made public appeals for Pakistan, a recipient of billions of dollars in American aid, to release Afridi, detained within weeks of the raid that killed bin Laden and strained ties with Islamabad.
In January, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in a television interview that Afridi and his team had been key in finding bin Laden, describing him as helpful and insisting the doctor had not committed treason or harmed Pakistan.
U.S. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher introduced legislation in February calling for Afridi to be granted American citizenship and said it was “shameful and unforgivable that our supposed allies” charged him.
The U.S. raid that killed bin Laden in the garrison town of Abbottabad, just a few hours’ drive from the capital Islamabad, humiliated Pakistan’s powerful military, which described the move as a violation of sovereignty.
Intelligence cooperation between the United States and Pakistan, vital for the fight against militancy, has subsequently been cut drastically.
Afridi’s prison term could complicate efforts to break a deadlock in talks over the re-opening of land routes through Pakistan to U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan, which are crucial for supplies.
Pakistan closed the supply routes, also seen as vital to the planned withdrawal of most foreign troops from Afghanistan before the end of 2014, in protest against last November’s killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a NATO air attack along the Afghan border.
Afridi’s case highlighted severe tensions between Pakistan and the United States.
He was arrested soon after bin Laden was killed, and has not been publicly heard of since. Seventeen health workers who worked with Afridi on the vaccination drive were fired in March, according to termination letters seen by Reuters, which described them as having acted “against the national interest”.
On May 2, one year after bin Laden’s death, some of them appeared at the site where bin Laden’s run-down white cement and brick house stood before it was demolished by Pakistani authorities.
“He (Afridi) was very nice to all the people in the team and did his job very diligently,” Naseem Bibi, one of the health workers told Reuters, holding one of the notices.
“Yes he was very interested in this house on that day (of the vaccination drive) but I am not sure why.”
The sackings underscored Pakistan’s lingering fury over the bin Laden affair, which exposed the military to rare public criticism, both because of the presence of the al Qaeda chief in the country, and the fact that U.S. special forces just swept in and out of the country and faced no resistance.
Additional reporting by Paul Eckert in WASHINGTON; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan