“Scapegoat”: the lonely life of a doctor who helped locate Osama bin Laden

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Sacked as a traitor in Pakistan but hailed as a hero by the United States, Shakeel Afridi is paying a heavy price for his role in the elimination of Osama bin Laden.

A decade after the al-Qaeda leader was shot dead by a team of Navy Seals, there is no indication that the doctor will be exonerated by Pakistani authorities for helping the CIA locate Bin Laden under the guise of a vaccination.

Locked in solitary confinement in Sahiwal prison, in the central Pakistani province of Punjab, Afridi now spends his time counting the days, without doing anything to differentiate them.

“He is being kept in prison now only to teach every Pakistani a lesson not to cooperate with a Western intelligence agency,” said Husain Haqqani, who was Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington at the time of the raid.

“Instead of exposing Bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan, authorities have made Dr Afridi a scapegoat.”

AFP reconstructed the doctor’s daily routine through interviews with his brother and his lawyer, as Afridi is not allowed to speak to anyone other than his family or his legal team.

For exercise, he walks his cell seven by eight feet and does occasional push-ups, according to his family.

He has a copy of the Quran, but is not allowed to have other books.

Twice a week, he shaves in the presence of a guard, but contact with other inmates is also strictly prohibited.

Family members can only visit twice a month, but are separated by an iron gate and are not allowed to converse in their native Pashto language.

“The prison authorities told us that we cannot discuss politics or talk about the situation inside the prison,” the brother said.

“Paid the highest price”

Hailing from the rugged tribal regions of Pakistan, the doctor seemed like an ideal asset to the CIA as the spy agency focused on Bin Laden’s hiding place in the city of Abbottabad.

All the Americans needed was proof of bin Laden’s presence. They therefore asked Afridi to launch a vaccination campaign in order to extract a DNA sample from inside her enclosure.

It is not known how much Afridi played a role in identifying the boss of Al Qaeda, but the doctor was arrested by authorities weeks after the deadly assault on Bin Laden’s home.

He was never convicted of anything related to the raid, but convicted by a tribal court under obscure colonial-era law for providing money to an insurgent group and convicted to a sentence of 33 years.

Successive US administrations have protested his continued imprisonment – and over the years there has been talk of a prisoner swap – but a deal to release Afridi never materialized.

“Let’s be clear: Afridi paid the highest price,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington.

“He became the fall guy.”

“He lives isolated”

The tenth anniversary of the Bin Laden raid comes just weeks after President Joe Biden announced that the United States’ long war in Afghanistan was drawing to a close.

In a speech to the nation, Biden cited the murder of Bin Laden as evidence that US forces had long since achieved their original goals of invading Afghanistan.

Unsurprisingly, the president made no mention of Afridi.


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