By Mohammad Zahid Wahla
The fact that Dr. Shakeel Afridi was working as an informant for the US Government is pretty clear given the outspoken support offered him by several high profile American politicians including Senator McCain and Secretary Hilary Clinton. Demands are growing and will continue to grow that Dr. Afridi was supporting a noble cause and should be let go. Even some well-known Pakistani analysts like Ayaz Amir have jumped on the bandwagon opining that providing information on Osama bin Laden is not the same as giving information about nuclear secrets, and thus Dr. Afridi’s punishment does not fit the crime. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has offered its support by concluding that “the trial of Dr. Afridi falls well short of the due process standards on many counts, not least because the core principle of natural justice has been ignored and Afridi denied due legal assistance. The question of trying Dr. Afridi on charges of treason also remains controversial.”
Hence the two most important questions that emerge from this saga are whether there ever is an acceptable form of “treason”, and what legal process is due to those accused of treason.
To objectively analyze this issue, one has to strip off circumstances specific to Dr. Afridi’s situation and assess this as a case of what it truly is – the act of providing secret support to a foreign Government without the approval or knowledge of one’s own country. For a moment, we should forget that Dr. Afridi was providing services to the US and that the perceived target was Osama Bin Laden. The essential question is whether the Pakistani Government can allow its citizens to form secret alliances with foreign governments in support of missions that those foreign countries, or perhaps the international community at large, may deem noble.
Most sovereign states have laws that prevent their citizens from engaging in activities with foreign governments or entities without proper declaration and permission. In the US itself, the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 requires US citizens that receive money from and provide support to a foreign entity to declare it to the US Government. The purpose of this Act is to facilitate “evaluation by the government and the American people of the statements and activities of such persons.” In 2011, the US Government used this Act to convict Ghulam Nabi Fai, a US citizen of Indian Kashmiri origin of receiving secret funds from the Pakistani Government to lobby and influence the U.S. government on the Kashmir conflict. Mr. Fai, a 62-year old human rights activist accused only of highlighting human rights violations in Indian-held Kashmir, was sentenced to two years in prison.
So it is clear that Pakistan is not the only country in the world that would’ve convicted Dr. Afridi of treason. And there is a good reason for this. Laws are not made to fit specific situations or people. If it was up to individuals to determine what is legally acceptable given their specific circumstances, there would be anarchy. Yes, it was a good deed to help getting Osama Bin Laden killed. But what precedent would it set for the future. What if the Indian Government solicited the secret help of a Pakistani citizen to hunt down someone wanted by the Indians – would it have been ok for Dr. Afridi to help the Indians assassinate Hafiz Saeed?
The other aspect of Dr. Afridi’s sentencing troubling the US and others is that his case was processed through the alternative tribal justice system rather than through regular Pakistani courts. Given the fact that Dr. Afridi himself and his foreign supporters have admitted openly to his working for a foreign government, it is not clear how regular Pakistani courts would have reached a conclusion different from that reached through the tribal system – that Dr. Afridi had in fact provided secret and unlawful support to a foreign government (and likely for a hefty payment). If the Americans didn’t have a penchant for hypocrisy and forgetfulness, they also would’ve remembered that in March 2011 they had actively supported the use of an alternative legal system instead of the regular Pakistani courts to settle the case of Raymond Davis. In this case, a payment of blood money had enabled a quick resolution of the Davis murder case.
The most troubling aspect of Dr. Afridi’s involvement in this spying operation is that it will likely have a negative effect on Pakistan’s vaccination program in the tribal areas. First, Dr. Afridi’s primary concern in this vaccination program appears to have been the collection of DNA samples rather than proper vaccination against Hepatitis B. It has been reported that in many cases Dr. Afridi and his colleagues administered incomplete doses of the vaccines, potentially exposing numerous residents within the northern areas to Hepatitis B. Further, Pakistan continues to fight an uphill battle against diseases like polio in the remote areas because the vaccination programs are eyed with suspicion by the locals. Whatever little credibility the vaccination program in Pakistan had is probably lost now and Dr. Afridi’s actions will end up hurting the futures of countless children. Last year, the organization Doctors Without Borders harshly criticized both CIA and Dr. Afridi for grave manipulation of the medical act.
In the end Dr. Afridi has perhaps gotten what he deserved. The US, as always, will continue to advance its own interests regardless of the costs involved for its so called allies. In the past the US has often made clear that the collateral damage resulting from its war efforts – the damage that is entirely and exclusively borne by the common people of Pakistan and Afghanistan – is not only acceptable but should be considered an honorable sacrifice. It would be a serious mistake, however, if the Government of Pakistan were to relent in face of US threats and let this incident go unpunished as the precedent set by Dr. Afridi’s actions will only encourage future violations of Pakistan’s sovereignty.
Mohammad Zahid Wahla is a blogger with Intellectualis.org, a think tank focusing on social, political, and cultural isssues facing Pakistan and the surrounding region.