DR Shakil Afridi has been sentenced to 33 years in prison for assisting CIA in its search for Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. His sentence is likely to renew the debate on what constitutes patriotism and treason in this (joint) war against militancy. Much of the discourse is bound to focus on the hatching of a conspiracy of which Dr Afridi’s fake vaccination scheme was a part. While the proponents of this view would have some justification to question a unilateral US operation on Pakistani soil of which Pakistan was not informed, other aspects of the debate should be considered before Dr Afridi’s sentence is endorsed. First, was the forum that heard the doctor’s case competent enough? The PPP-led government has time and again expressed a wish to do away with the Frontier Crimes Regulation. The law has survived and perhaps for some legal minds treason can be tried under it. What about geographical jurisdiction? Although Dr Afridi was posted in Khyber, the location of his ‘treasonous’ act in Abbottabad is a fair distance from the tribal areas where the FCR is usually applied. The accused was denied a lawyer as a group of elders in Bara deliberated on his fate. Why was he not tried in a regular court guided by Pakistan’s penal law — or would that have thrown up some unsavoury facts?
Second, the US had a multimillion-dollar bounty on Bin Laden. The temptation to help US authorities track down the world’s most wanted terrorist would have been too great, especially in the absence of a clear warning from the Pakistani state to its nationals of the consequences of helping America locate dangerous militants in return for huge rewards. In fact, American targets have been busted here before. This could not have been possible without local intelligence and logistical contacts — none of whom have been tried.
Third, the unilateral operation naturally led to anger on Pakistan’s part — but was the target of its wrath worth it? The truth is that Pakistan’s sovereignty would have been better protected with better vigilance, and — something that the US should also note — an effort by both Pakistan and the US to undertake aggressive joint operations against suspected terrorists. Unfortunately, the absence of a clear-cut definition of Pakistan-US ties in the war against militancy has hindered not only a sound counterterrorism measure but also one that would have helped bridge differences. In all this, Dr Afridi’s actual crime has been ignored: the fake vaccination campaign, abetted by the CIA, went against all ethics of the medical profession, and may intensify the already existing misconceptions among some families regarding vaccination for their children.