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Pakistan Doctor, Who Helped CIA, Accused Of Treason

LYNN NEARY, host: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary. Steve Inskeep is away.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host: And I'm Renee Montagne.

When the U.S. tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden in his hiding place in northwest Pakistan, it chose to keep the Pakistani army and its intelligence service in the dark about that mission. The fact that Pakistan was caught with the world's most wanted man living within walking distance of a premiere military academy humiliated and angered many in the country.

And in the weeks following the raid, a Pakistani doctor was arrested for allegedly helping the U.S. find bin Laden. A government commission was set up to investigate the killing. And that commission has now announced treason charges against that doctor. NPR's Julie McCarthy has been following this story and joined us from Islamabad.

And Julie, the treason case against this man, the doctor, tell us who he is and what exactly he's accused of doing.

JULIE MCCARTHY: Well, Dr. Shakeel Afridi has been variously described as an army medic and a public servant of the government health department. And it's alleged that he assisted the CIA in trying to pin down bin Laden's precise whereabouts. Privately, the U.S. has lobbied very hard for Pakistan to release this man, who's been in detention since right after the U.S. raid that went down on May 4.

The U.S. had a bead on someone inside this large secretive compound in the Pakistani military town of Abbottabad, and it wanted proof that it was bin Laden. Enter Dr. Afridi. He's alleged to have run a fictitious vaccine program in the city in order to conclusively determine that the tall figure in the garden the Americans were seeing was, in fact, bin Laden.

It was a ruse. And the object was to get DNA samples from bin Laden's children to confirm that the man the Americans were seeing was indeed bin Laden. And that's what he was alleged to have been part of.

MONTAGNE: And would a treason trial of this doctor be something that Pakistanis would like, would appreciate?

MCCARTHY: I think very much so. To put this man on trial would be welcomed and it would be seen as a very popular move. You know, at a time of great antagonism with the United States, in no small measure because of this covert raid that killed bin laden, it will be seen as a way to strike back at the Americans. And one analyst described the doctor really as a hostage to Pakistan's humiliation over the raid.

And others here have compared this case of Dr. Afridi, a Pakistani who helped the Americans, to Jonathan Pollard, an American who spied on behalf of Israel in the U.S. and was tried for treason in an American court. And the question likely to be asked of Afridi would be, if you had information, why not turn it over to the Pakistani intelligence? Why give it to the Americans? Are you not a traitor?

MONTAGNE: Now, if the U.S., Julie, has been pressing Pakistan to release the doctor, how is putting him on trial going to be seen by the Obama administration?

MCCARTHY: Well, very likely seen as a hostile act. I mean, the suggestion that someone who helped the Americans capture the world's most wanted terrorist ought to be labeled a traitor to the Pakistani cause is certain to anger the Americans.

You know, observers and analysts of this strategic relationship say this decision sends the message to the whole of Pakistan, don't cooperate with the Americans. Never mind that you're both fighting al-Qaida, never mind that we're allies. And this announcement itself, which came directly from the Abbottabad commission, is highly unusual. The commission has jealously guarded its findings. And now very publicly it's announced a treason trial.

MONTAGNE: And that commission also has said that the all-Qaida leader's wives and children, who've been in Pakistan since the raid, they're now free to leave the country. What does that mean exactly? Where would they go?

MCCARTHY: Well, the commission lifted the travel restrictions that prevented them from leaving Pakistan. They hail from several countries - Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Where they end up is not clear. But they are now free to go. The commission questioned bin Laden's wives and took statements from them and said last night they were no longer required and could leave.

The commission also said that it had questioned the head of the ISI, Pakistan's premiere spy agency. And it was reportedly informed that the ISI knew nothing about bin Laden's presence in Pakistan. And as for bin Laden's compound, that will be turned over to civilian authorities in Abbottabad. So several chapters here closing in the bin Laden affair, but it's still loudly resonating in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Julie McCarthy speaking to us from Islamabad.

Thanks very much.

MCCARTHY: You're welcome, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.