AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
In Pakistan, a tribal court has handed down a 33-year prison sentence to a doctor who helped the CIA search for Osama bin Laden. Dr. Shakil Afridi set up a fake vaccination program that allowed him to go door to door in Abbottabad. That's where Navy SEALs eventually found, and killed, the al-Qaida leader. Afridi wasn't able to get the DNA samples he was looking for, but Pakistan and U.S. officials say his work aided the search.
He was convicted of treason, though the U.S. State Department says there's no basis for the charges. Chris Brummitt is the AP bureau chief in Pakistan. He's based in Islamabad, and he's been following the case. And Chris, to start, tell us more about this tribal court where Dr. Afridi was tried.
CHRIS BRUMMITT: Well, it's based in the Khyber region, close to the Afghan border. The legal system there is distinct from the rest of Pakistan. It's a holdover from the British colonial era. I mean, essentially, there are no juries or judges. The verdict today was handed down by a government official, in consultation with various tribesmen up there. As I say, it's a holdover from the British colonial time, and it's being criticized by human rights groups for basically, being unfair.
CORNISH: At the same time, I was reading that the penalty for treason, say, in Pakistan's federal court system could have been the death penalty. And what to make of the fact that this wasn't tried in Pakistan's federal court system?
BRUMMITT: That's right. The tribal courts do not allow for the death penalty whereas - as you point out - in federal courts, he may well have gotten the death penalty for treason. So, I mean, I have - heard different versions of this. I think it's easier to get a conviction, perhaps, in the tribal courts. So that could be one reason. Another reason could be, I suppose, that they wanted to avoid giving the guy the death penalty for some - I don't know, some reason, to sort of limit the damage in relations with America.
CORNISH: As a result, what's been the response from the public in Pakistan?
BRUMMITT: Well, on Twitter - people have taken to Twitter and they've been - you know, some think that this guy was a traitor for collaborating with the Americans. In fact, I've seen some commentaries that said he should've got the death penalty. Whereas others, I suppose you'd call them more liberal Pakistanis, point out perhaps the absurdity of this verdict in that Shakil Afridi was not conspiring against the state. Bin Laden was an enemy of Pakistan, too. They think he should have been released long ago and never even held in custody, actually.
CORNISH: We've heard from the U.S. State Department today, but what other action has the U.S. taken to help Dr. Afridi?
BRUMMITT: Well, ever since it became public knowledge that he'd been arrested and in fact there was this CIA-led operation, a vaccination scheme to try and get bin Laden's DNA - I mean, they've privately and publicly been calling on Pakistan to release Afridi. But I'm not sure what they can do moving forward, given the perilous state of relations between Pakistan and the United States. I think if relations improve, then down the line, one could see - perhaps - Afridi being pardoned.
CORNISH: Can you put this in context for us, in terms of - is Dr. Afridi's case just kind of a minor blip in what is just a great, big, nation-to-nation discussion?
BRUMMITT: Yeah. I think within the context of Pakistan and the United States, it's probably not the major issue. The major issue is Pakistan's support for the Afghan Taliban - alleged support - and U.S. demands on Pakistan to reopen these blocked supply routes. But I think it's just become a symbol of really, the gulf between the two countries.
In America, he's considered a hero. Here, he's considered a traitor. And I think it's striking that Pakistan has not arrested anyone for harboring bin Laden but today, they sentenced someone to 33 years in jail for helping authorities find bin Laden. So I think if you're an American critic of Pakistan, this has tremendous resonance - I would suggest; you know. And if you want to paint Pakistan as no longer a friend, then something like this is more fuel to this argument, you know, of disengagement with Pakistan.
CORNISH: Well, Chris, thank you for talking with us.
BRUMMITT: It's my pleasure.
CORNISH: Chris Brummitt is the AP bureau chief in Pakistan. He spoke to us about the conviction of Dr. Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani doctor convicted for his role in helping the U.S. in the search for Osama bin Laden.