PESHAWAR, Pakistan – Conditions may be going from bad to worse for the jailed Pakistani doctor who played a critical role in helping the U.S. get Osama Bin Laden, sources have confirmed with Fox News.
Dr. Shakil Afridi has been moved from the Central Peshawar Jail to a higher-security prison over trumped-up charges he was working with outsiders in a plot “to escape,” according to his supporters.
“This is nonsense,” human rights defender Zar Ali Khan, who has longed championed the jailed doctor’s cause, told Fox News on Friday. “His life is under threat in Pakistan whether it is Peshawar, or elsewhere in Pakistan. I do not know what conspiracy government has hatched now.”
Afridi’s lawyer, and cousin, Qamar Nadeem Afridi told Fox News by phone Saturday that on early Friday morning “Shakil was shifted to Adyala Jail from Peshawar Central Jail,” but was unsure if he would be under tighter lock and key.
“Neither I nor his family has been allowed to meet him,” Qamar said, denying reports that the U.S. was helping Shakil to flee from jail.
Moreover, the lawyer believes that the transfer was being planned for some time as Adyala Jail recently underwent renovations - but he isn’t losing hope yet.
“On 22nd May, Shakil will be completing his seven years of consective imprisonment out of 23 years of total imprisonment,” Qamar noted. “So, we might think that this shift is done under the U.S. pressure... Shakil might get an official release and pardon over his remaining charges, helping him to leave to U.S. permanently."
To many Americans, Afridi - now in his mid-50s - is the hero doctor who played a key role running a cover vaccination program at the Abbottabad, Pakistan compound where bin Laden had been living. But in the eyes of many Pakistanis, he is a traitor who generated national embarrassment.
Even before reports of this prison transfer, Afridi's supporters had become increasingly concerned about the doctor's fate. A plan last year to move him to a lower-profile jail, with the intention of someday allowing his quiet release, was quashed in the courts.
Afridi’s due process under the tribal system continues to be called into question. The system allows closed hearings and does not require the defender to be present.
Despite the public perception that Afridi committed treason by working with the U.S., that is not the reason he remains behind bars. Afridi was sentenced to a 33-year jail term, but the sentence was reduced in 2014 to 23 years following a decision by the Frontier Crimes Commission Captain.
“He is serving a sentence since 2011 on the pretext of having ties with the militant group Lashkar-e- Islam (LEI) providing medical care to its members and extending financial support to them,’” Qamar, who has been permitted to see the doctor only twice since 2012, told Fox News on Friday.
According to Qamar, the evidence for such a charge came in the form of the “prosecutor submitted some papers, coupled with the written statements of anonymous persons, who saw ‘LEI’ militants receiving treatment in the hospital under Afridi supervision.”
Qamar insisted that LEI militants “hate” Afridi and would have nothing to do with him. Zar Ali Khan, president of Society for Rights and Development and chairman of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) Commission of Human Rights, also dismissed such claims.
Had Afridi been charged with treason, he would have had the right to public hearings and a lengthy appeals process. But such a process would also mean details of the raid carried out successfully by U.S. Navy SEALs would be exposed - something most in the partner country have endeavored to avoid.
Afridi, who facilitated a vaccination program to collect DNA samples to verify bin Laden’s hideout in 2011, had no knowledge of the high-value target or exactly who he was working for, his brother Jamil, who has not been seen his sibling since just prior to his 2011 arrest, vehemently asserted.
Afridi’s pivotal part in the larger operation was exposed after the Obama administration publicly disclosed details of the successful mission, carried by Navy SEALs on May 2, 2011. Three weeks later, the doctor was arrested.
The general view from Islamabad is that the case is riddled with complexities. Officials contend they cannot appear to be interfering with the FATA system or going soft on seemingly “treasonous” cases that brought them such high-profile humiliation. Nor can the government appear to the voting public to be bowing to U.S. demands, while at the same time endeavoring to improve the U.S. partnership.
One former U.S. intelligence official, who worked closely on the Afridi issue, told Fox News that in the initial years after his arrest, Pakistani leadership issued assurances that there would be a way to release him quietly when “the case died down and everyone stopped asking.”
But seven years on, he continues to languish.
Sardar Masood Khan, president of the Azad Jammu & Kashmir and Pakistan’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations from 2008 to 2012, asserted there has been “no breakthrough” in the case to date, and he does not foresee one anytime soon.
Frustrated U.S. officials insist Afridi has not been forgotten.
A State Department official told Fox News the case remains on their radar, and they continue to raise it with Pakistan’s top brass.
Meanwhile, the office of Sen. Rand Paul, who has been a strong supporter of Afridi, issued a statement Friday afternoon.
"Sen. Paul remains highly concerned for the safety of Dr. Afridi, and believes Pakistan should immediately release him. Additionally, Dr. Paul has repeatedly urged Pakistan to reform laws that have led to the targeting of religious minorities, including Christians."
Sen. Paul had earlier said he supported President Trump's decision to cut aid funding to Pakistan in part because of the Afridi situation, adding that “further cuts should be considered should Dr. Afridi remain unjustly behind bars.”
In March, the Afridi case was woven into the $1.3 trillion draft spending bill that mandates a $33 million freeze of financial assistance to Pakistan unless the doctor is released and cleared of all charges.
But hope is fading, and not just for Afridi himself.
Afridi’s first lawyer, Samiullah Afridi, was gunned down by unknown assailants in April 2015, as was a Peshawar jail deputy superintendent who argued on behalf imprisoned doctor.
Afridi’s wife Imrana Ghafoor, who was a school principal, remains mostly in-hiding with their three children, but is permitted to see her husband from behind a glass wall once a week.
Qamar said last month they continue to move locations every few months and are “no longer in Peshawar.” Furthermore, they rely on financial support only from Ghafoor’s father.
And even human rights defender Zar Ali Khan fled to the Netherlands in September last year, as a result of his Afridi advocacy.
“It has been a more than five months that I haven't been able to speak to my family, who are living in Peshawar's outskirts, because they are under great threats,” he said. “I narrowly escaped death, when on October 31 2016, I was attempted to be shot down."
Then in December, Khan said his NGO office in Peshawar was attacked by unknown assailants and water “showered down” destroying his records and his livelihood.
“My office was my asset which I had started from scratch in my 20 years efforts but in a minute, I lost my everything,” Khan added.
“But still, I am a human rights defender it is my responsibility to demand justice for Dr. Afridi and his family. A free and fair trial is his right as a human being."