Polio, Bin Laden, and The Price of Hypernationalism

Polio drops being delivered under armed guard

Dr Shakil Afridi is facing renewed legal trouble after the tribunal hearing his appeal was dissolved a few weeks ago. You will recall that the doctor was not arrested and convicted of helping the CIA locate Osama bin Laden, the international terrorist who ISI was definitely not hiding. While he waits to find out whether any new tribunal will hear his appeal, though, he is once again in the news, this time taking the blame for the nation’s growing polio epidemic.

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Dr Afridi’s effect on polio eradication

Polio drops given to a child

With the story going through so many changes so quickly, the truth about Dr Afridi’s case is cloudier than ever. One thing is clear, though – Dr Afridi did engage in one indefensible act: Using a critical healthcare programme as cover for his activities. Unfortunately, in expressing concern about Afridi’s willingness to risk the credibility of his work, we are forgetting that even this is part of the real threat to healthcare in the country – extremism and conspiracy theories.

It is widely accepted that Dr Afridi was running a fake polio vaccination campaign. What is not clear at this time is whether the polio vaccines were fake, or just the programme he claimed to be part of. This matters quite a deal – what prevents polio is the vaccine, not the programme. If the vaccines were real, the doctor could at least be forgiven for improving prevention, even if under false circumstances.

The real threat to polio prevention programmes, though, is not that people are concerned that they are being given treatments that won’t work – it’s that they believe these treatments are part of a dangerous conspiracy against them. And they didn’t get this idea from Dr Afridi, they got it from extremists.

Underlying those factors [preventing polio eradication], however, is an intense mistrust among some Pakistanis for the vaccines and the people who supply and administer them. Radical clerics seed rumors that vaccines are un-Islamic because they are made from substances derived from pigs, or that they cause infertility. Some clerics try to convince parents that polio vaccines are made from the urine of Satan.

The reluctance by some Pakistanis to trust polio vaccination programs is also driven by a belief that the U.S. is behind the campaigns. Anti-American sentiments are more fervent than ever in the country, stoked this year by the case of CIA contractor Raymond Davis, who shot to death two Pakistanis in Lahore in January, as well as by President Obama’s decision to not inform Pakistani leaders in advance about the U.S. operation against Osama bin Laden in the city of Abbottabad in May.

Before anyone had ever heard of Dr Afridi, they were already being told not to accept polio vaccines because of crazy conspiracy theories being spread by extremist Imams. Dr Afridi’s acts will be used by extremists to play to the irrational fears they have already planted, but Dr Afridi is not the source of the mistrust of polio vaccine.

Using a critical health care programme as cover for his activities was wrong – even prominent Americans are saying it was a mistake. But whether Dr Afridi is punished or not for this mistake, Pakistan will continue to be plagued by a disease wiped out in the developed world not because of Dr Afridi – not even because of the CIA. Our children will continue to die unnecessarily until we are willing to eradicate the plague of extremism that allows polio to spread. Until then, Dr Afridi is just a distraction.

Triple Jeopardy: The many trials of Dr Shakil Afridi

Shakil AfridiWhen it was first reported that Dr Shakil Afridi had worked with the CIA to locate Osama bin Laden, it didn’t take a law degree to understand that the doctor was in for a tough future. Actually, a law degree wouldn’t have helped at all. Feisel H Naqvi, partner at Bhandari, Naqvi & Riaz and an advocate of the Supreme Court explained in fine detail that the conviction was neither legal nor “sensible”. As criticism of the conviction pour in, though, the doctor’s real troubles appear to have only begun.

Despite bad feelings about the way the Abbottabad raid was carried out, people felt equally sick about the way the doctor was whisked away to FATA, given a secret trial under FCR without any lawyer, and then sentenced to 33 years in prison. Analysts from across the political spectrum began to speak out against the lack of justice, and it began to look more like a scapegoating than a legitimate trial.

Then, a new type of report began to appear in the papers. Dr Afridi was described as “a hard-drinking womaniser who had faced accusations of sexual assault, harassment and stealing”. Anonymous “current and former Pakistani officials” said “his main obsession was making easy money”. As predicted, “US officials called the accusations character assassination”.

Now we are being told that Dr Afridi wasn’t sentenced for helping the CIA – he was sentenced for helping extremist militants!

The tribal court that convicted the doctor said his “love” for Mangal Bagh “was an open secret”.

It said the accused provided two million rupees ($22,000) to Lashkar-e-Islam and helped to provide medical assistance to militant commanders in Khyber.

So now we’re to believe that Dr Shakil Afridi was a hard-drinking, womanising, rapist, thief, swindler, CIA agent, extremist militant. It seems that no matter who you are, you now have a reason to want to see Shakil Afridi punished. How bloody convenient.

It’s quite well known that you’re supposed to convict someone in the media before you drag them into court and actually sentence them to prison (or worse). By the looks of it, the way Dr Afridi was rushed through the system, someone forgot to do the dirty work first and now they’re playing catch up.

Whether the doctor did something illegal and deserves to be punished has become beside the point, as the bumbling way his case is being handled now overshadows any question of whether he helped the wrong agency track down bin Laden. We are now being told that the tribal court recommended Dr Afridi “be produced before the relevant concerned court for further proceedings under the law” – this time, possibly, for treason under Article 6.

Dr Afridi was convicted in a secret trial, we were told, for helping the CIA. When people reacted poorly to the whole secret trial bit, we were told that it’s okay because he’s a real jerk. Now we’re told that he wasn’t really convicted of working to find terrorists, but of helping them, and he could face another trial for working with the CIA. After bungling it the first time, is someone trying to get another bite at the apple?

Dr Afridi’s Conviction

Dr Afridi convicted

Dr Shakil Afridi was sentenced to 33 years on Wednesday for helping the CIA locate Osama bin Laden. Dr Afridi was convicted by a tribal court on anti-state activities charges, and some are saying that his being charged under FCR instead of the Pakistan Criminal Code (CPRC) saved his life from a death penalty for treason. There is a debate to be had about whether the conviction was fair – Osama bin Laden was not an agent of Pakistan, so how can helping to find him be considered “anti-state activity”? But today I want to discuss a different question that is raised by the conviction.

While Dr Afridi was charged with “anti-state activities”, and routinely described as guilty of treason against Pakistan, another court handed down another set of convictions. In the case of the terrorist attack on PNS Mehran which martyred 12 Pakistani soldiers and destroyed critical national security assets in what officers suspected was an inside job, the punishments were a one-year demotion and two six-months demotions. In one of the most devastating attacks against our national security, the worst punishment is a one-year demotion?

For the next 33 years, Dr Afridi will suffer in prison for his part in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. While the doctor languishes in prison, people responsible for PNS Mehran attack are free. What does this tell about our national security priorities? What does it tell about our system of justice? What does it tell about our chances of ending terrorism in the country?

Former Minister for Law, Justice, Parliamentary Affairs & Human Rights Iqbal Haider observed that “The Mehran Base destruction was not just a loss of our Pak Navy. It was a national loss and it is in our national interest to ensure that none goes unpunished and such dastardly incidents do not occur in the future”.

Courts harass politicians with never ending hearings and trumped up charges, while militants come and go, even collecting taxpayer money while they wait. If we continue to treat terrorists with leniency, giving terrorists more rights than honest citizens. The question lingers…when will our patience run out?