WASHINGTON: US authorities said a Pakistani doctor who helped the CIA track down Osama bin Laden turned down an opportunity to leave his country and resettle overseas with his family, two US officials told Reuters on Tuesday.
Dr Shakil Afridi was jailed last week in Pakistan for 33 years for treason and the Obama administration has come under steady criticism for its handling of his case.
The US officials said the resettlement offer for Afridi came about the time of the May 1, 2011, raid in which US Navy SEAL commandos killed the al Qaeda leader at his complex in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
They indicated that Afridi’s family would have been welcome to leave Pakistan with him as part of the resettlement plan. The officials said he rejected the offer for reasons that are unclear.
Afridi was accused of running a fake vaccination campaign in Abbottabad and used cheek swabs to try to gather DNA from bin Laden’s children to confirm the identity of those living in the compound.
The DNA effort ultimately did not succeed but US sources have told Reuters he helped American operatives locate and follow the bin Laden courier who led them to the Abbottabad hideout.
The offer for Afridi to leave Pakistan was confirmed independently by two US officials.
The White House and State Department declined comment on the matter.
Afridi’s case has damaged US-Pakistan relations with outraged US senators voting last week to cut aid to Pakistan by $33 million – $1 million for each year of the doctor’s prison sentence.
Pakistan has said Washington should respect its court’s decision.
Pakistani authorities arrested Afridi several weeks after the bin Laden raid. In the intervening period, US authorities believed they would have had ample time to get him out of the country if he had wanted to leave.
“Before he was arrested, Doctor Afridi was offered opportunities to leave Pakistan with his family but he turned those down,” one of the US officials said.
“Some may question why he did this but no one, including the doctor, could have foreseen that Pakistan would punish so severely someone whose work benefited the country so much,” the official said.
Another official said it was not usual for people in Afridi’s situation to reject resettlement offers. The official said Afridi may have believed that rather than becoming the object of character attacks and accusations of treason by Pakistani authorities, he might instead have won praise for his role in helping rid Pakistan of a threat to its security and stability.
Afridi’s brother Jamil has described the treason charges as baseless and said the doctor was being made a scapegoat.
“If my brother had done something wrong, he had a valid US visa. He could have fled the country,” Jamil said after the sentence was handed down, adding that the family had received no offers of help from the US government.
Deepening the controversy over the doctor, current and former Pakistani officials in interviews with Reuters during the weekend described Afridi as a hard-drinking womanizer who had faced allegations of sexual assault. They said he also performed surgeries without proper qualification.
US officials responded by defending Afridi and saying they knew of no reports of wrongdoing on his part.