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Afridi and the US

July 20, 2012

A DATE has been set for an appeal hearing in the case of Dr Shakil Afridi, and it should be used an opportunity to set things right. From its inception his trial has raised questions about the real intentions of the state. To begin with, if he was thought to be guilty of treason in helping the CIA track down Osama bin Laden through a fake vaccination program, he should have been tried in an open court. But even within his trial under the Frontier Crimes Regulation, there are problems that should be addressed in appeal. Why haul him up under the FCR apparently for a crime committed outside its jurisdiction, only to convict him for allegedly colluding with Lashkar-i-Aslam instead? Media reports from Khyber Agency that deny such militant links, combined with the uproar in Washington, imply that the procedure followed and the charges filed may have been designed to keep the trial behind closed doors, keep Dr Afridi behind bars and relieve international pressure. So the validity of the conviction, and the long sentence handed down, need a close look during appeal, which will unfortunately take place behind closed doors again.

There is also the matter of a possible cut in US military aid for reasons that include the Afridi trial. It is true that the tenacity with which the Pakistani state has gone after a man who may have helped in the hunt for Osama bin Laden contrasts sharply with the lax justice meted out to many with real links to terrorism. But that is no justification for linking this matter to the aid programme. Whatever Washington’s concerns about the Afridi case, they should be discussed in that specific context. Slashing assistance in response, as one chamber of Congress voted to do on Wednesday, will simply be counterproductive. Using aid cuts as a tool to punish Pakistan only undermines the US administration’s attempts to repair relations and put them on a more stable basis. The case is an embarrassment for Pakistan, but allowing it to overshadow other features of the already fraught relationship will do anything but allow for the rebuilding of ties.