Pakistan panel calls doctor's help finding bin Laden 'treason'

ISLAMABAD — A Pakistani doctor who helped the CIA track Osama bin Laden before U.S. special forces killed the terrorist leader should be charged with treason, the official Pakistani inquiry into bin Laden's presence in the country recommended Thursday.

The inquiry's judgment on Shakeel Afridi probably will infuriate U.S. officials, who consider him a hero. If he's convicted, Afridi could be sentenced to death.

Earlier this year, McClatchy revealed that Afridi had been secretly recruited by the CIA to help verify that bin Laden was living in a walled compound in the city of Abbottabad, a two-hour drive north of the capital, Islamabad. Afridi organized an elaborate sham immunization campaign that sent health workers to the compound in hopes of taking DNA samples.

The effort apparently failed to gather any evidence that proved bin Laden's presence, and the CIA was never certain that the al Qaida leader was there, even when President Barack Obama decided to mount the raid.

Agents of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate spy agency arrested Afridi, a senior health official working for an arm of the Pakistani government, three weeks after the May 2 Abbottabad raid. He's been in custody ever since amid allegations that he's been severely tortured.

Washington has been pressing Islamabad to release him so that he and his family can be resettled in the U.S., but Thursday's recommendation appears to make that highly unlikely.

The Pakistani inquiry also called for bin Laden's wives and children to be sent back to their home countries. The U.S. special forces raid that found and killed the al Qaida chief left behind three wives and several children who lived with him.

Islamabad and Washington are already in a tense diplomatic standoff, centered on U.S. allegations that Pakistan is supporting insurgent groups in Afghanistan, while Pakistan is angry about the unilateral American operation to get bin Laden.

Obama said Thursday at a news conference in Washington that Pakistan was in touch with "unsavory characters" in Afghanistan, a reference to the Taliban and their allies. Some also accuse Pakistan of hiding bin Laden, though U.S. officials have said repeatedly that there's no evidence of that.

Pakistan's military was humiliated by American forces finding and killing bin Laden just half a mile from the country's most prestigious military academy. The government set up the five-person commission of inquiry, headed by a Supreme Court judge, "to ascertain the full facts regarding the presence of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan."

The commission has questioned Afridi, as well as bin Laden's wives and daughters.

"In view of the record and evidence placed before the commission in relation to Dr. Shakeel Afridi; the commission is of the view that prima facie, a case of conspiracy against the State of Pakistan and high treason is made out against him," the inquiry said in a statement.

The commission doesn't have the legal authority to institute charges against Afridi but its recommendations are likely to be followed. Pakistani officials have said that Afridi was working for a foreign intelligence agency, which is a serious crime in most countries, including the United States.

This week the inquiry, which meets behind closed doors, also carried out what it called an "exhaustive" interview of ISI chief Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, who reportedly denied that his agency knew that bin Laden was in Abbottabad. It's uncertain whether the commission's findings will be made public.

Oddly, for a man in hiding, bin Laden lived in Abbottabad with three of his wives and several children. With him was his youngest wife, Amal, 29, a Yemeni citizen, and Khairiah, 62, and Siham, 54, both Saudis.

How many of the dozen-plus children found at the Abbottabad compound were bin Laden's is still unknown. One, a girl named Safiya, was born to Amal around the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. During the raid, U.S. special forces killed one son, Khalid, who was Siham's oldest child, aged around 22.

Amal previously had told Pakistani intelligence officials that they'd lived in Abbottabad for five years.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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