PESHAWAR - There can be few jail cells in Pakistan as lonely as the one occupied by Shakil Afridi, the doctor who helped the CIA hunt down Osama bin Laden.
He is kept in solitary confinement to protect him from hundreds of convicted militants eager to avenge their hero’s death. He may not be safe even from the guards - only two trusted officials are allowed to see him.
“My brother was confident that he will be released very soon. He said: ‘I’m innocent, I’ve done nothing wrong,’” Afridi’s brother Jamil told Reuters in a recent interview after visiting the jail in Peshawar.
“There is a prayer said by one of the famous prophets, when he was eaten by a fish,” Jamil added. “Dr Shakil is reciting that same prayer for his safety.” A small-time country physician long dogged by allegations of medical malpractice, Afridi, now 48, was recruited by the CIA some years ago, according to several US and Pakistani officials. One Pakistani intelligence source said he was talent-spotted while working in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Peshawar in 2009 and used to gather intelligence on militants in the border area.
Later, he was asked to scout bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, under the cloak of an anti-hepatitis campaign. US officials say Afridi provided important information on activity at the compound. Bin Laden was killed in a US Navy SEAL raid in Abbottabad in May last year that was conducted without informing Pakistani authorities.
Three weeks later, Afridi was picked up, interrogated for months and, in May this year, sentenced to 33 years in jail.
When he was led to a warder’s office for the meeting with his brother on June 4, Afridi wore no shackles or handcuffs and was clad in the shalwar-kameez.
Jamil Afridi noticed he had gained weight - perhaps because conditions had improved since his transfer to the jail from detention centres used by intelligence agencies. Jamil, a village schoolteacher, says he himself has been forced to adopt a rudimentary disguise, dark glasses and a cap, to ward off unwanted attention since appearing on TV to defend his younger sibling.
“My brother has become a victim of the US game,” said Jamil, who spends much of his day worried that passersby are actually security agents tailing him. He used the term “angels” for the agents, as many Pakistanis do because they are believed to be everywhere but remain invisible. “If my brother had really played a role for America, I think the Americans should have kept it secret.”
The day after Afridi was sentenced, the US Senate expressed its anger by voting to dock Islamabad $33 million in aid - $1 million for every year of the term.
To Pakistan’s military, which was enraged by the bin Laden raid, Afridi is a traitor. Critics in the tribal areas on the Afghan border say he deserves to be punished, not for helping the CIA but for his lack of scruples as a doctor.
Elders and former officials say he made money by performing unnecessary operations on unsuspecting villagers and that he was accused of sexual harassment by nurses.
Jamil Afridi dismisses the allegations as baseless. Some former colleagues have described Afridi as a diligent professional and US officials have also leapt to his defence.
“Available information showed Afridi was a respected member of the Pakistani health care community,” said a senior US official in Washington. “We are aware of efforts, put in place since Dr Afridi’s arrest, to denigrate his character.”
US officials say they offered to relocate Afridi and his family after the bin Laden raid, but that the doctor declined.
There was no way to independently confirm that account.
Jamil Afridi said he did not know whether his brother had received such an offer, but he believed Afridi would have been reluctant to take his two sons and a daughter out of Pakistan, where he had a stable job and his wife was working as the principal of a government college.
“He had a good future,” Jamil Afridi said. “Why would he move to the US to live there?”