WHEN Dr Shakil Afridi was sentenced to 33 years in prison in May last year, this newspaper editorialised that it seemed to be the preposterous act of a government with a smarting ego. The doctor had been suspected of having organised, for monetary recompense, a fake vaccination campaign that was understood to have helped the CIA in identifying Osama bin Laden. But the crime for which he was convicted during the hastily conducted trial turned out to be maintaining links with the proscribed group Lashkar-i-Islam. Amongst the reasons that Dr Afridi’s conviction was viewed with general misgiving was that it was conducted under the Frontier Crimes Regulation, which applies to Fata.
On Thursday, though, the FCR’s appellate court held that he had been tried by the assistant political commissioner, acting under the FCR as an additional district magistrate, while the sections of the PPC under which Dr Afridi was convicted meant that he could only be tried by a district and sessions judge, or the political agent of the agency. On technical grounds, therefore, the conviction has been set aside and a fresh trial is to begin. This constitutes a chance for the state to correct some of its earlier wrongs. As was pointed out at the sentencing last year, the charges against Dr Afridi — amongst others, conspiring to wage war against Pakistan or depriving it of its sovereignty — were such that he could have been tried in an open court under the regular laws of the land; legal precedents are available, and refer to people tried and convicted for providing information for recompense to foreign governments. Every effort must be made to ensure that the new trial is transparent and fair; smarting egos are no reason to rush convictions through.