PESHAWAR, Pakistan – The family of the Pakistani doctor sentenced to 33 years in prison for helping the United States track down Osama bin Laden said Monday the man is innocent and dismissed his trial as a sham.
The conviction of Shakil Afridi last week added another pressure point in Pakistan's already fractured relationship with the U.S. Senior American officials have urged Pakistan to release the doctor, regarding him as a hero who worked to stop the terrorist leader. Islamabad views Afridi as a traitor who colluded with a foreign intelligence agency in an illegal operation on Pakistani soil.
Also Monday, two suspected U.S. missile strikes pounded militant hide-outs in a tribal region close to Afghan border, killing nine alleged insurgents, officials said. There have been five such attacks this week. The strikes have also raised tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan.
Afridi ran a vaccination campaign on behalf of the CIA to collect blood samples of bin Laden's family at a compound in Abbottabad where U.S. commandos killed the al-Qaida leader in May 2011. The samples were intended to help the U.S. match the family's DNA to verify his presence in the garrison city.
Afridi's older brother Jamil and two lawyers representing the doctor said at a news conference in the frontier city of Peshawar that they will appeal the verdict, which was handed down last week in a tribal court whose proceedings were never made public.
"This was a one-sided decision," said Jamil. "All allegations against him are false. He didn't do anything against the national interest."
Afridi was tried under the Frontier Crimes Regulations, the set of laws that govern Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal region. The FCR doesn't allow suspects to have legal representation, present material evidence or cross-examine witnesses. Verdicts are handled by a government official in consultation with a council of elders, instead of by a judge.
The raid by American commandos infuriated Pakistani officials who were not told ahead of time or of the CIA operation in their country to track him down. Afridi was arrested in the weeks after the raid. He was convicted and sentenced last week for conspiring against the state.
The lawyers said authorities have not given them documents related to the case, including a copy of the verdict.
Afridi's brother said the doctor had an American visa and pointed out that he stayed in Pakistan after the bin Laden raid for 20 days, and didn't leave the country.
"Had he been guilty, he would have escaped," Jamil Afridi said.
He did not comment on whether he thought his brother should have helped the U.S.
The case puts the family in a delicate situation. Anti-American sentiment is widespread in Pakistan, and people who are viewed as supporting the U.S. or working for Washington are sometimes targeted by militants, especially in the tribal areas.
In his first comments on Afridi's conviction, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani called Afridi's actions a "serious offense" but said he had the right to a fair trial.
"His deed is not good," Gilani said in an interview with Pakistani Geo News TV. "His deed is a serious offense," Gilani said, but Afridi should have an access to the judicial process.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Sunday criticized Pakistan over Afridi's conviction and sentencing, calling it "disturbing."
U.S.-Pakistani relations plummeted to new lows in November, when American airstrikes inadvertently killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, prompting Islamabad to block U.S. and NATO supply lines into Afghanistan.
Pakistan has demanded an apology over the raid and an end to drone strikes against militants along the Afghan border as a precursor to reopening the supply lines.
The U.S. has shown no sign of stopping the covert CIA attacks, which have picked up pace this week after a lull for most of the year.
In the latest attack Monday, a pair of suspected U.S. missiles hit a compound and a vehicle in Datta Khel in North Waziristan, less than 24 hours after another such strike late Sunday had killed five suspected Islamist militants in the same tribal region, Pakistani intelligence officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
The identities of the dead were not known, but the region is home to al-Qaida militants and insurgents fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Associated Press Writers Rasool Dawar in Peshawar, and Asif Shahzad and Rebecca Santana in Islamabad contributed to this report.