Militants deny link to Pakistani doctor in bin Laden case

Reuters , Thursday 31 May 2012

Pakistan's militant Lashkar-e-Islam denies link to Shakil Afridi, convicted of conspiring with the CIA against the state; says it wants to punish him according to Islamic law

Pakistani doctor Shakil Afridi talks with people outside a building at an unknown location in Pakistan in this still image taken from file footage released on May 23, (Photo: Reuters).

Deepening the mystery in a case that is straining Islamabad's relations with Washington, a Pakistani militant group said on Thursday it never had ties to a doctor who helped the CIA find Osama bin Laden, even though he was jailed for aiding them.

Last week, after Dr Shakil Afridi was convicted by a court in the Khyber tribal region near the Afghan border, Pakistani officials said the decision was based on treason charges for helping the CIA and conspiring against the state.

After that announcement rankled US officials, Pakistan then said the doctor had a history of womanizing, sexual harassment and assault and stealing, allegations that could not be independently confirmed.

A court document released on Wednesday stated that Afridi was imprisoned for 33 years for supporting the Lashkar-e-Islam (LI) militant group.

"There is no truth to this. We want to get him ourselves. If we get hold of him, we are going to punish him according to Sharia," Abdul Rasheed, an LI commander, told Reuters.

"He is a traitor, an enemy of Islam, a greedy blackmailer."

The comments are likely to raise new questions about Afridi's case, which has come to symbolise the strains in the alliance between Pakistan and the United States.

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta criticised Islamabad over Afridi's sentence and suggested it would hurt efforts to repair ties damaged by several events, including the unilateral raid by US Navy SEALs that killed bin Laden on Pakistani soil.

Pakistani officials describe bin Laden's long presence in the garrison town of Abbottabad as a security lapse and reject suggestions that members of the military or intelligence services were complicit in hiding him there.

Cooperation between the United States and Pakistan is critical for weakening the Taliban insurgency in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Failure to do so could hurt President Barack Obama's re-election bid. The United States and Pakistan are deadlocked in negotiations over re-opening supply routes through Pakistan to NATO troops in landlocked Afghanistan.

Pakistan shut the routes after a NATO cross-border air attack killed 24 Pakistani soldiers six months ago.

In Washington, government sources said the United States is making strenuous efforts to win Afridi's release from jail.

While the judgment released on Wednesday said there was evidence that Afridi "has been shown acting with other foreign intelligence agencies", it said the court in Khyber had no jurisdiction to act on that.

It recommended that the evidence may be produced before an appropriate court for further proceedings.

LI is a relatively small militant group based in Khyber, one of seven ethnic Pashtun tribal districts along the porous border with Afghanistan that have never come under full government control.

The group is led by Mangal Bagh, a former bus driver turned warlord. It is not allied with any of the other major militant groups operating in nuclear-armed Pakistan.

LI had several bloody clashes with the al-Qaeda linked Pakistani Taliban, seen as the biggest security threat to Pakistan, one of the most unstable countries in the world.

Former and current Pakistani security and intelligence officials say Afridi was a poorly qualified doctor who performed unauthorised surgeries. LI made similar accusations.

The group could be attacked by other militant organisations if it is seen as having cooperated with Afridi.

"We punished him three years ago after people complained about him. He conducted improper surgeries, sold poor quality medicines and blackmailed people," said Rasheed.

"We caught him, fined him and distributed that money to the affected people. His surgeries had disabled many people. The government is inept so it never acted against him."

Afridi was tried in a tribal administration court, under laws which do not carry the death penalty.

Some analysts said the decision was made to appease the United States. The Pakistani Taliban had a similar interpretation.

"Shakil Afridi is a traitor, and the only punishment for a traitor is death. Pakistan's rulers are afraid of America, so they are not sentencing him to death," Pakistani Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan told Reuters.

"Dr Shakil Afridi caused the martyrdom of Osama bin Laden, who was a hero of Islam. If the Taliban get their hands on Shakil Afridi, we will cut him to pieces."

Afridi is in solitary confinement because authorities at the prison in the northwestern city of Peshawar fear militants or others may try to kill him.

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