Dr Afridi — a hot potato no one wants to hold
PESHAWAR: The Pakistani physician charged with helping the CIA track down Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad but convicted on supporting Pakistani militants is a sitting duck in a prison teeming with hardcore militants, security agencies have warned the government.
Dr Shakil Afridi is a hot potato no one wants to hold, complained a senior government official, adding that the province’s repeated requests to the centre for his transfer to a safer location have so fallen on deaf ears.
The official said Dr Afridi, a resident of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and charged under the federal laws, was a high-profile prisoner and therefore, the federal government should take charge of him.
The interior ministry in Islamabad has turned a blind eye to intelligence agency warnings about possible threats to Dr Afridi, while Punjab has refused to take him in, according to the official.
The Punjab government refused to accommodate Dr Afridi in Adiala Jail, Rawalpindi. He’s not a prisoner of Punjab but a prisoner of Pakistan came the reply from Lahore.
Dr Afridi, son of Meewa Khan, was sent to Peshawar Central Jail on May 25, 2012 after his conviction since it was the closest jail to Khyber Agency whose political administration held his trial.
Although convicted in Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the federal government and other federating units have left the entire responsibility of security of this sensitive prisoner to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government, which has prisons crowded with hardcore criminals and militants, officials said.
“This convict does not belong to this province. He is from the federal area and convicted under a federal law i.e. FCR,” said an official of the home department.
He added that although prisoners belonging to Fata were the responsibility of the federal government or perhaps equally of the other federating units, it was Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which took the burden of all these federal prisoners without charging federal government for it.
“Only in this one case from among more than a thousand federal prisoners, we have requested the federal government to assume responsibility for this federal prisoner but neither the federal government nor any other federating unit has shown willingness to share our burden,” said the official.
The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government has sent several requests to the interior ministry to shift Dr Afridi to another safer prison under the federal government or federating units but unfortunately, the interior ministry’s response is awaited.
Why the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government requested help in Dr Afridi case is quite obvious. The provincial government’s worry about Dr Afridi’s safety inside Peshawar Central Prison is not baseless.
Intelligence sources have warned the government of attacks on Dr Afridi from militants associated with banned organisations planning to assassinate him or break jail to hold him hostage before making demands to the government.
Another warning said some miscreant groups in tribal areas have been offered huge amount of money to get Dr Afridi released from prison.
The danger inside Peshawar Central Jail crowded with around 2,200 prisoners against the capacity of 850 is obvious from the fact that many hardcore militants are kept there.
Prison officials said there were around 160 militants of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, 40 of Tehrik-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Mohammadi, 15 of Sipah-i-Sahaba and others of Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, who posed serious threat to Dr Afridi’s life inside their jail.Jail officials said ‘non-serious’ attitude of those at the helm of affairs in the federal government regarding threats to Dr Afridi’s life inside the prison might cause huge embarrassment.
“I cannot ensure his security inside the prison due to the presence of a large number of militants there. His food could be poisoned. His life is in danger here,” said Khalid Abbas, acting inspector general of prison and an experienced officer. He said the threat needed to be taken seriously lest another embarrassing incident like Bannu attack and jailbreak occurred.
“Although this issue if mishandled has the potential of negative consequences for the country, it seems it does not figure prominently on the priority radar of the interior ministry in Islamabad,” said a senior official at the home department.Dr Afridi’s jailing has already exasperated the US, where the Senate Appropriations Committee has voted to cut the country’s aid to Pakistan by a symbolic $33 million – $1 million for each year of jail time.
The situation where a high profile prisoner is kept in the same prison crowded with hardcore militants, it is not much different from letting a lamb step into a lion’s den, says a critic.