By D Suba Chandran
Pakistan never fails to amaze people; the latest one to arouse such sentiment is the prison sentence by an assistant political agent of Khyber Agency to a doctor who helped trace Osama bin Laden. Why this hurry, when the killers of Benazir Bhutto, Salman Taseer and scores of other leaders roam free, years after committing the atrocities? Was the due process followed in concluding that Dr Shakil Afridi committed ‘treason’ in helping to confirm Laden’s location? What message is Pakistan sending to the rest of the world?
A short note on the case would read as follows. After the CIA identified the presence of a high value al Qaeda target in Abbottabad, it wanted confirmation. Dr Afridi, on the pretext of collecting a blood sample, acquired Laden’s, which ultimately helped the CIA confirm their suspicion. It would have been a different story had the CIA gone ahead irrespective of this confirmation, for the target was worth the risk and subsequent collateral damage. Dr Afridi would not have been the only one helping to zero in on Laden in Abbotabad – scores of people would have been interviewed, bribed, and made a part of this search. For instance, how did the CIA reach Abbotabad in the first place, and who gave the information regarding the mansion where Laden was staying? Certainly not Dr Afridi; he was the final local arrow to confirm the resident of the Abottabad mansion in question.
Now focusing on the sentence, which was issued by an assistant political agent of Khyber Agency, where Dr Afridi also worked officially. Remember, he had been already terminated by the Health Department for his actions.
Is a political agent the right person to sentence Dr Afridi, under the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) of the FATA? The FCR was framed by the British originally in 1887, to deal with a particular set of crimes committed by a particular set of people. Since this region was a ‘frontier’ of the British Indian empire, (then based in Calcutta) and was treated as a buffer region between the British and the Russians, the semi-legal structures erected at that time was more in consonance with the then tribal practices. The political agent assisted by a jirga was a British strategy to deal with and impose ‘order’ in the late 19th century. Had the British continued after 1947, even they would have changed the strategy and brought the tribal society into the mainstream. Alas, Pakistan chose to use it as an excuse for not mainstreaming and bringing the tribal region under ‘law’ and ‘governance’, instead, it has deliberately allowed the local population to be governed by the FCR to impose order.
Today, there is a strong appeal within the tribal regions to repeal the FCR. The tribal society is no more ‘tribal’ in terms of how they were two centuries before. Despite the political rhetoric, the PPP has not taken the next step to repeal the FCR, which today is an outdated institution along with the political agent.
Even if one has to conduct a trial under the FCR, can the political agent and his chosen jirga deliberate an incident that has taken place in Abbottabad, which is not in the Khyber Agency? The colonial British would have perhaps allowed it in the 19th century, but certainly not today.
Irrespective of whether the political agent and the FCR is relevant today, or whether the former has the mandate to deliberate the case, what is important is the verdict – that Dr Afridi committed treason against the State, by helping the US nab Osama bin Laden. Where is the ‘treason’ in helping the international community identify an international terrorist hiding illegally after committing the worst atrocities around the globe and killing many Pakistanis in the process?
Finally, what is even more important is the message that Pakistan is sending to its own people and the rest of the international community. Does working with the US to find al Qaeda leaders constitute treason in Pakistan? If one has to use the word ‘treason’ for this purpose (nabbing the al Qaeda), then what were the military and political leadership doing in the last decade when helping the US fill up Guantanamo Bay?
This case would not have stood the scrutiny of regular courts in Pakistan. It would have brought many unpleasant facts, had Afridi been tried in the rest of Pakistan. Perhaps that is why Dr Afridi was tried by a jirga chosen by an assistant political agent in Khyber Agency. When the international community is suspecting Pakistan’s involvement in hiding Osama bin Laden, a verdict such as this would not help the State’s image. Nor it would help moderate Pakistani society, which is fighting extremism in its own way.
D Suba Chandran
Director, IPCS & Visiting Professor, Pakistan Studies Programme, Jamia Millia Islamia
email: [email protected]