ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan’s new intelligence chief has postponed his first visit to Washington amid harsh U.S. criticism of the 33-year prison sentence imposed on Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani doctor convicted of treason for aiding the CIA’s hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Lt. Gen. Zaheer ul-Islam, appointed in March to head the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, was set to meet this week with his U.S. counterpart, CIA Director David H. Petraeus, a Pakistani official said.
But Islam canceled the trip because of “pressing commitments here,” the Pakistani military said in a brief statement Monday. “There is no other reason,” it added.
A senior Pakistani official said increased bilateral tensions rooted in the Afridi case and a long-simmering dispute over Pakistan’s refusal to reopen its territory to NATO supply convoys contributed to the postponement.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said the CIA and the ISI are working on a new date for the meeting.
The CIA declined to comment.
The ISI detained Afridi, a government surgeon, three weeks after U.S. commandos killed bin Laden. Afridi, 48, ran a fake hepatitis vaccination drive to collect bin Laden’s DNA as a way to verify the al-Qaeda leader’s presence in Abbottabad, the garrison town in Pakistan where he hid for six years until his death.
Senior U.S. officials and several members of Congress have expressed outrage at Pakistan’s punishment of Afridi, while lauding him as a hero and patriot. But Pakistani leaders call him a traitor who spied for a foreign power that launched an illegal unilateral operation.
For years, U.S. intelligence worked with the ISI to help identify al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan and around the world. That cooperation extended to the CIA’s drone war in Pakistan’s tribal region that has eliminated scores of militants.
But the U.S. decision not to inform Pakistan about the impending raid on bin Laden’s compound last May showed the degree to which Washington mistrusted its supposed ally’s spy agency and army. When Islam replaced Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, who retired after leading the Pakistani spy agency since 2008, some in Washington saw an opening for improving the troubled U.S.-Pakistan alliance against terrorism.
The Afridi case is the biggest bilateral problem to occur on Islam’s watch. Members of Congress and top Obama administration officials have called on Pakistan to pardon and release Afridi, and some have implied that Pakistan is an ally of al-Qaeda.
On Monday, relatives and supporters of Afridi said at a news conference in the northwestern city of Peshawar that they will seek to overturn his conviction, handed down last week in a tribal court. Under that system, Afridi did not have the right to present evidence or have an attorney.
“The United States should help us,” Jamil Afridi, 50, brother of the doctor, said in an interview.
Peshawar prison authorities have barred him and the family’s attorneys from communicating with Shakil Afridi, saying a no-visitors policy had been imposed for his safety. The doctor’s wife and three children have not seen him for a year, according to Jamil Afridi.
Shakil Afridi has a right to an appeal under rules that govern the tribal areas, but lawyers seeking to represent him said they have been unable to obtain a copy of the court’s verdict, which they need to file an appeal. They also said they have been barred from getting the doctor’s signature, which they need to establish power of attorney so they can represent him.
Afridi lived in the semiautonomous Khyber Agency in Pakistan’s northwest, which the government says put him under the jurisdiction of tribal administrative officials who also are empowered to act as a court.
Pakistan has made clear that it considers the case an internal judicial matter and has otherwise not responded to U.S. calls for Afridi’s release.
Although they initially applauded bin Laden’s death, Pakistan’s leaders have since made it official policy to denounce the Abbottabad raid as a violation of national sovereignty.
Pakistan’s politicians and its public also view the CIA drone-fired missile strikes on suspected militants in the tribal belt as an affront to their nation’s sovereignty. Washington has ignored Islamabad’s repeated demands that it end such attacks.
The fifth drone strike in less than a week occurred Monday, local officials said, when missiles killed five suspected Islamist extremists in North Waziristan, where many militant groups are based. The relentless attacks have focused on areas near the Afghan border thought to harbor fighters allied with al-Qaeda.
Local authorities and tribesmen say that at least 30 fighters have died in the strikes since Wednesday, with many of the victims described as foreign jihadists, including Uzbeks and Arabs.
Special correspondent Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.