Pakistani authorities have sentenced a doctor accused of helping the CIA find Osama bin Laden to 33 years in jail on charges of treason, officials said, a move almost certain to further strain ties between Washington and Islamabad.
Shakil Afridi was accused of running a fake vaccination campaign, in which he collected DNA samples, that is believed to have helped the American intelligence agency track down bin Laden in a Pakistani town.
The al Qaeda chieftain was killed in a unilateral Unied States special forces raid in the town of Abbottabad in May last year.
“Dr Shakil has been sentenced to 33 years imprisonment and a fine of 320,000 Pakistani rupees ($3,477),” said Mohammad Nasir, a government official in the northwestern city of Peshawar, where the jail term will be served. He gave no further details.
Afridi is the first person to be sentenced by Pakistani authorities in the bin Laden case.
The sentence was handed down under tribal laws, which unlike the national penal code, do not carry the death penalty for treason. Bin Laden’s long presence in Pakistan -- he was believed to have stayed there for years -- despite the worldwide manhunt for him raised suspicions in Washington that Pakistani intelligence officials may have sheltered him.
Pakistani officials denied this and said an intelligence gap enabled bin Laden to live here undetected. No one has yet been charged for helping the al Qaeda leader take refuge in Pakistan.
A government commission tasked with investigating how he managed to evade capture by Pakistani authorities for so long is widely accused of being ineffective. Afridi’s imprisonment will almost certainly anger ally Washington at a sensitive time, with both sides engaged in difficult talks over re-opening NATO supply routes to US-led troops in Afghanistan.
Senior U.S. officials had made public appeals for Pakistan, a recipient of billions of dollars in American aid, to release Afridi, detained within weeks of the raid that killed bin Laden and strained ties with Islamabad.
In January, US Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta, said in a television interview that Afridi and his team had been key in finding bin Laden, describing him as helpful and insisting the doctor had not committed treason or harmed Pakistan.