The wife and children of the Pakistani doctor credited with having helped the United States find Osama bin Laden are in increasing fear for their lives and should be evacuated from Pakistan immediately, friends and supporters close to them say in exclusive interviews with FoxNews.com
Shakeel Afridi, 51 – called a traitor in Pakistan, but a hero in the U.S. after the May 2011 SEAL Team 6 raid that killed the al Qaeda leader – remains in isolation in a Pakistani jail, where his bid for a review of his 2012 conviction for “terrorism links” has been stalled since last March.
Afridi’s wife, meanwhile, is in hiding with their two sons and a daughter, fearful they’ll become targets of groups within Pakistan – Taliban among them – who’ve declared their determination to seek revenge for bin Laden’s killing.
“I am sorry to say that (the) U.S. government is doing nothing for him,” Qamar Nadeem Afridi, the doctor’s lawyer and also a cousin, told FoxNews.com.
"He has been left to wolves and terrorists all around him in Peshawar central prison.”
- Zar Ali Khan Afridi, Pakistani human rights activist
President Obama – during his 2012 re-election campaign – touted the killing of bin Laden as one of his administration’s first-term achievements.
While the State Department says the U.S. continues to “raise this issue at the highest levels” of the Pakistani leadership, Qamar Nadeem says he, Afridi’s brother Jamil and Afridi’s friends are bearing most of the doctor’s legal and other expenses.
“You know, both of them, he and his wife, were (in) very respectable government positions prior to this situation,” said Qamar Nadeem. “He was a doctor, head…doctor in the district, while his wife was a principle of (a) government degree college for women.
“But now they are in a very … miserable condition. You can’t even imagine. He is not working; she is in hiding.”
The degree to which they are in danger is emphasized by Zar Ali Khan Afridi, a prominent Pakistan-based human rights activist, whose last name reflects his tribal affiliation, not any familial relationship to the doctor.
Saying he himself has faced death threats for pleading the doctor’s case “since day one,” Zar Ali told FoxNews.com that the doctor’s family should immediately be given passage out of Pakistan for their safety.
The wife and the children – whose approximate ages are 14, 16 and 18 – are understood to be living with the wife’s father somewhere in the province of Punjab, which lies due south from Peshawar, the city in whose central jail Afridi is held.
“Pakistan is not a country to provide security, and we also do not believe in its system,” Zar Ali said. “You know that Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer was assassinated by his own police guard (in 2011). Therefore, demanding security support is not a good thing. (The family’s) presence here in Pakistan is (the) worst (of all situations). They should be evacuated because things are serious. You know, there are fundamentalists and terrorists all around.”
One of Afridi’s former lawyers, Samiullah Afridi, cited death threats against him and his family when he fled to Dubai in late 2013, then quit the case the following May. The lawyer is now back in Pakistan, but several individuals FoxNews.com contacted for this article also cited death threats they had received for supporting Afridi as they declined to speak or asked not to be named.
Afridi is widely believed to have been targeted by Pakistani authorities because he played a role in what proved to be a deep embarrassment for the country’s leadership. Not only was bin Laden found on Pakistani territory, his compound hideout was located in a garrison town – Abbottabad – raising questions about who, within the Pakistani establishment, might have already known about his presence.
Still, many U.S. lawmakers have long questioned why the administration could not use the military and other aid Washington gives to Pakistan – billions of dollars worth since Pakistan was named a partner in the war on terror after the September 11, 2001 attacks – as leverage to secure Afridi’s release.
Testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry said it was “not as simple as holding everything accountable to one thing.” He cited nuclear non-proliferation talks with nuclear-armed Pakistan, and also said the country provided vital access for supplying us forces in Afghanistan.
“We’re not ignoring Dr. Afridi at all,” Kerry told the committee after Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) – calling Afridi an “American hero” – sought to know how much longer the United States would rely on “quiet diplomacy” before cutting off the aid flow.
The State Department told FoxNews.com that the matter remains open – to discussion.
“We have clearly communicated our position on this issue to Pakistan, both in public and in private,” said Noel Clay, a spokesman. “We continue to raise this issue at the highest levels during discussions with Pakistan’s leadership.”
But while the matter may have been brought up while Kerry and other American diplomats had a working dinner with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and some of his aides during an official visit to Pakistan this month, the Secretary of State failed to mention Afridi during a wide-ranging press conference he held with Pakistani foreign affairs adviser Sartaj Aziz.
It is believed that Afridi himself is being held in a 10-by10-feet cell with little opportunity for exercise. Pakistani authorities have said he is held in isolation for his own safety, but they drastically cut back on his visit privileges after he spoke with FoxNews.com by cellular phone in August 2012.
Qamar Nadeem said he, as his lawyer, was prevented from meeting with his client, while the only family members granted access were Afridi’s wife and children.
It’s for this reason that Qamar Nadeem refers back to that time to relay Afridi’s most recent appeal to the United States. “He told me the last time I met him that he (hopes for) diplomatic, legal and financial help from the U.S. government,” the lawyer told FoxNews.com.
Afridi was defiant and frank in his FoxNews.com interview, describing brutal torture at the hands of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, and saying the agency was openly hostile to the United States.
Zar Ali told FoxNews.com that the restrictions on lawyer and family visits were a “serious human rights violation.”
“We have condemned it time and again but to no effect at all,” he said. “This is pathetic. He has been left to wolves and terrorists all around him in Peshawar central prison.”
Since the FoxNews.com interview, Afridi’s brother Jamil has been denied all visits, said Zar Ali. His wife met with him, accompanied by their two sons, in late 2013, and accompanied by their daughter in August 2014, according to reports.
Afridi ran a vaccination program that allegedly aimed to help the Central Intelligence Agency confirm bin Laden’s presence at his compound hideout.
While trying to collect DNA samples from bin Laden family members in the compound, Afridi reportedly gathered information that strengthened the CIA’s assumption that America’s most wanted man was present.
Pakistani intelligence launched an all-encompassing investigation in the wake of the Navy SEAL raid, arresting Afridi three weeks later at a roadside checkpoint.
While it was speculated he would be tried for treason in a Pakistani federal court, his case was transferred to the jurisdiction of the reputedly lawless Federally Administered Tribal Areas – even though Abbottabad is situated in a neighboring province that is subject to Pakistan’s standard judicial system.
Bordering Afghanistan, FATA is subject to Frontier Crimes Regulations, a vestige of the former British Empire’s bid to counter opposition to colonial rule.
“This is a ruthless system,” said Zar Ali. “We demanded … an open trial in Abbottabad, but the government did not listen.”
Afridi was called a traitor in 2012 by Pakistan’s then Interior Minister Rehman Malik. Yet the charges he faced accused him of aiding an anti-government terror group – Lashkar-i-Islam – rather than working with a foreign intelligence service.
This same group reportedly kidnapped Afridi in 2008, leading his family to pay a ransom to secure his release.
Zar Ali signaled the charges had been trumped up as he accused the government of applying a “double standard.”
“It says that it is fighting against terrorists but, when someone helps to track down a terrorist, he is arrested on a false (charge),” he said.
Afridi received a 33-year sentence in May 2012, provoking outrage in the United States, and leading to Congressional moves to cut a symbolic $33-million from U.S. aid to Pakistan.
In March 2014, a review led to the sentence being reduced to 23 years when one of the charges against Afridi was dropped. However, Afridi’s legal team immediately argued that the review should have been the equivalent of a total re-trial. Since then, proceedings have stalled while the FATA tribunal currently hearing the appeal awaits a complete case record from earlier judicial authorities.
“No hope,” said Qamar Nadeem, but he added that his client had “no other option” but to continue with the legal process.
Zar Ali was more blunt, charging that Pakistani courts “have no value.”
“Everything is decided by security establishment,” he said.
Follow New York-based journalist Steven Edwards @stevenmedwards