Treason Trial Complicates U.S.-Pakistani Relations

The Pakistani doctor who helped the U.S. pinpoint the location of Osama bin Laden is facing a 33 year prison term. A Pakistani court convicted him this week of treason. The sentencing drew protests from the Obama administration, but many in Pakistan wanted an even tougher punishment.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's been another rough week, diplomatically, for the U.S. and Pakistan. It started with Pakistan's president traveling to the NATO summit in Chicago. There, he was nearly snubbed by President Obama because Pakistan did not - as expected - reopen critical NATO supply routes to Afghanistan. Then, Pakistani officials announced that a doctor who had helped the U.S. find Osama bin Laden has been sentenced to 33 years in prison.

All of this has fueled outrage in both countries. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports from Islamabad.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Dr. Shakil Afridi has done what few others have managed - unite Washington. On Capitol Hill, outraged members of the Senate Appropriations Committee yesterday voted unanimously to slash Pakistan's aid by a symbolic $33 million - one million for every year of Afridi's sentence. At the State Department, Secretary Hillary Clinton called the conviction unjust and unwarranted.

SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON: The United States does not believe there is any basis for holding Dr. Afridi. His help, after all, was instrumental in taking down one of the world's most notorious murderers. That was clearly in Pakistan's interests as well as ours - and the rest of the world.

MCCARTHY: The CIA hired Afridi to run a phony vaccination program, in a bid to collect blood and DNA samples at bin Laden's compound to verify his presence. But Robert Grenier, a former CIA station chief in Islamabad, says it's unlikely that Afridi even knew that his CIA handlers were closing in on bin Laden.

ROBERT GRENIER: I could imagine that they might have told him that they were seeking information concerning militants in the area, including some who might be enemies of Pakistan; but certainly, without having told him who it was, exactly, that they were trying to track down.

MCCARTHY: The proceedings against Afridi were held far from public view. A powerful political agent convened a jirga of elders to hear the evidence in Khyber Agency, where Afridi had worked. The tribal area is beyond Pakistan's judicial reach. Experts say the doctor had no lawyer. Constitutional law expert Salman Raja suspects the authorities sought to avoid a detailed, proper trial in a court.

SALMAN RAJA: In a court, there might be, you know, arguments and counterarguments and evidence, and so on. So they were probably not, you know, as sure as they would have liked to be, of getting a swift conviction before the courts.

MCCARTHY: Mehdi Hassan, the former chairman of Pakistan's Human Rights Commission, says the prosecution was for the benefit of public opinion that had been whipped into an anti-American froth. Hassan also says Afridi's work for the United States could not have undermined the national security of longtime ally Pakistan.

MEHDI HASSAN: United States is a Pakistani ally for the last 64 years. So how can a person be a traitor, working for an ally?

MCCARTHY: But the bogus vaccination campaign would seem to have breached all medical ethics, and reports about payments from the CIA suggest Afridi may have been motivated by money. Whatever the motive, the former chief of Pakistan's premier intelligence service, the ISI, says Afridi got what he deserved. Javed Ashraf Qazi says his crime was that he kept hidden from Pakistan what he was doing for the Americans.

JAVED ASHRAF QAZI: Then it is espionage. It is betraying your country. It is working on the quiet for a foreign intelligence agency. This would be a crime in any country of the world.

MCCARTHY: Robert Grenier notes that Jonathan Pollard, an American who spied for Israel against the United States, was sentenced to life in prison in the U.S. He says senior American officials pressing loudly for Afridi's release are, quote, "tone deaf." One former senior intelligence official asked: What did we think would happen to the doctor?

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Islamabad.

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