Afridi failed to obtain the samples and didn’t know the target of the program, but U.S. officials said he nonetheless contributed to an intelligence operation that culminated in the May 2, 2011, killing of bin Laden by a Navy SEAL team.
U.S. officials depicted Afridi as a patriot and said his actions saved both Pakistani and American lives. But in Pakistan, where the U.S. incursion deep into the country led to national hand-wringing and anger, Afridi was widely excoriated as a traitor.
The CIA declined to comment Wednesday on Afridi’s sentence. But a senior U.S. official with knowledge of counterterrorism operations in Pakistan said the surgeon “was never asked to spy on Pakistan.”
“He was asked only to help locate al-Qaeda terrorists, who threaten Pakistan and the U.S.,” the official said. “His activities were not treasonous; they were heroic and patriotic.”
Pentagon spokesman George Little said, “Anyone who helped the United States find bin Laden was working against al-Qaeda and not against Pakistan.”
In a joint statement, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the ranking Republican on the committee, called the sentence “shocking and outrageous” and urged Pakistan to pardon Afridi and release him immediately.
“What Dr. Afridi did is the furthest thing from treason. It was a courageous, heroic and patriotic act, which helped to locate the most wanted terrorist in the world — a mass murderer who had the blood of many innocent Pakistanis on his hands,” the senators said.
They warned that “Dr. Afridi’s continuing imprisonment and treatment as a criminal will only do further harm to U.S.-Pakistani relations, including diminishing Congress’s willingness to provide financial assistance to Pakistan.”
Afridi was arrested several weeks after the killing of bin Laden. The doctor was eventually tried under a tribal judicial system that denies the accused the right to have an attorney or to present evidence.
Under a recent change to Pakistan’s much-despised criminal codes, created more than a century ago by the British rulers of the Indian subcontinent to put down tribal revolts, Afridi has the right to appeal to an agency tribunal.
Afridi was remanded to a jail in the city of Peshawar and ordered to pay a fine of about $3,500, Khyber Agency officials said.
He could have received the death penalty if he had been tried under normal Pakistani law, but even so, the harsh sentence has added to tensions between Islamabad and Washington over issues that include ongoing CIA drone strikes and deadly exchanges between U.S. and Pakistani forces on the border with Afghanistan.