WASHINGTON - Amid rising clamour in the US Congress over of the sentencing of the Pakistani doctor for helping the CIA find Osama bin Laden, Secretary of State Hillary Thursday stepped up her criticism of Pakistan's move, saying it is "unjust and unwarranted."
"The United States does not believe there is any basis for holding Dr Afridi. We regret the fact that he was convicted and the severity of his sentence," she said, calling his treatment "unjust and unwarranted."
A tribal court in Khyber on Wednesday convicted Afridi of treason after he agreed to collect DNA for US intelligence to verify the presence of the al Qaeda leader.
“We regret both the fact that he was convicted and the severity of his sentence,” Clinton added.
The chief US diplomat said Afridi’s role “was instrumental in taking down one of the world’s most wanted murderers. That was clearly in Pakistan’s interest, as well as ours and the rest of the world’s.” Afridi ran a fake vaccination programme designed to collect bin Laden family DNA from the compound of Abbottabad, where the al Qaeda leader was shot dead in a US commando raid in May 2011.
The doctor’s actions “to help bring about the end of the reign of terror designed and executed by bin Laden was not in any way a betrayal of Pakistan,” Clinton said.
“We are raising it (his case) and we will continue to do so because we think that his treatment is unjust and unwarranted,” she said.
Analysts noted that he remarks were stronger than those given Wednesday by State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland who said Pakistan had “no basis for Dr. Afridi to be held.”
Nuland’s muted remarks came as Washington and Islamabad, allies in the war on terror, struggle to repair ties that hit a low when US forces staged the secret raid into Pakistan that killed bin Laden.
They were strained to breaking point last November when US forces staged a botched raid that killed 24 Pakistani troops, prompting Islamabad to cut off the land route for supplies to NATO troops in neighbouring Afghanistan.
Carl Levin and John McCain, the top senators from the two major US parties on the Senate Armed Services Committee, on Wednesday called Afridi’s sentence “shocking and outrageous” and urged Pakistan to pardon and free him immediately.
“Dr. Afridi’s continuing imprisonment and treatment as a criminal will only do further harm to US-Pakistani relations, including diminishing Congress’s willingness to provide financial assistance to Pakistan,” they warned.
The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday voted to cut aid to Pakistan by a symbolic $33 million – $1 million for each year of jail time handed to Afridi.
The measure, an amendment to the $52 billion US foreign aid budget, passed in a 30-0 vote in a sign of growing outrage here over Afridi’s conviction.
“We need Pakistan, Pakistan needs us, but we don’t need Pakistan double-dealing and not seeing the justice in bringing Osama bin Laden to an end,” said Republican senator Lindsey Graham, who pressed for the measure.
The mammoth appropriations bill, which includes a total of $1 billion in assistance for Pakistan, will go now to the Senate floor after passing out of committee on Thursday.
The reduction represents a 58 per cent cut in the amount of aid President Barack Obama had requested for Pakistan.