Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Doctor who helped US in search for Osama Bin Laden jailed for 33 years

Osama bin Laden was tracked down with help from Dr Shakil Afridi, above, who was arrested soon after US commandos raided al-Qaida leader's compound in Abottabad. Photograph: Qazi Rauf/PA

For some Americans the Pakistani doctor who worked on a clandestine operation to track down one of the US's greatest enemies is a hero who should be given citizenship. But for Pakistan's security agencies Dr Shakil Afridi, a 48-year-old physician who once led campaigns to vaccinate children against polio on the Afghan frontier, is a villain.
On Wednesday a representative of the country's main spy agency said Afridi had got what he deserved when he was sentenced to 33 years in prison for conspiring against the state, for his role in trying to help the CIA track Osama bin Laden to his hideout in the garrison town of Abbottabad.
The verdict, passed under colonial-era legislation that denies defendants the right to a lawyer, was handed down by an official from Khyber Agency, one of Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal areas, in consultation with a council of elders. Afridi was also fined £2,221.
The former public health officer, who reportedly did not know who exactly the CIA were trying to target, was arrested soon after the night-time raid on the former al-Qaida leader's compound on 2 May last year.
As first revealed by The Guardian, in the weeks running up to the assault by US Navy Seals Afridi had been running a bogus hepatitis B vaccination campaign for the CIA, a front designed to collect blood samples in the hope of finding people who matched the bin Laden family DNA.
More than a year after the killing of bin Laden he is the only person to have been arrested in connection with an event which humiliated Pakistan's all-powerful military establishment and severely undermined relations between the US and Pakistan.
An official inquiry into all aspects of the affair appears more vexed by how US forces could have got in and out of Pakistan without being detected than whether Bin Laden had a network of helpers who are still at large.
The conviction of Afridi came despite public lobbying by senior Americans, including the US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, who in January publicly said Afridi had "helped provide intelligence that was very helpful with regard to this operation".
The support of Dana Rohrabacher, a controversial US Congressman who introduced legislation calling for Afridi to be given US citizenship, was perhaps less helpful. Rohrabacher is reviled by the Pakistani establishment for his support for a nationalist movement in the southern province of Baluchistan.
"He was not in any way treasonous towards Pakistan," Panetta said in January. "He was not in any way doing anything that would have undermined Pakistan."
But that did not wash with a Pakistani intelligence official who compared Afridi to Jonathan Pollard, a former US intelligence analyst who was imprisoned for spying on behalf of Israel.
"He was working for a spy agency of a third country, irrespective of the fact that country is an ally," said the official.
On Wednesday Pentagon press secretary George Little responded to questioning about the verdict, saying: "Anyone who supported the United States in finding Osama bin Laden was not working against Pakistan. They were working against al-Qaida."
Lawyers were puzzled by the decision to try Afridi under the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), a much criticised set of harsh rules designed by the British in the 19th century to subjugate unruly tribes.
Wajihuddin Ahmed, a former supreme court judge, said the FCR did not cover Abbottabad where the writ of regular Pakistani law runs. The authorities may have wished to deal with the case in a "hush hush type of hearing".
"Everyone is entitled to be tried in an ordinary court and in ordinary way and I cannot understand why they would do that if the offence – if it is an offence at all – was committed in Abbottabad," he said.
Although Afridi has the right to appeal against the verdict to an official known as the FCR Commissioner, his best hope may lie in a presidential pardon, should relations between Pakistan and the US improve. That is not likely in the near term given the fundamental disagreements between the two countries over American use of drone attacks in the tribal areas and Washington's refusal to formally apologise for the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers in an incident on the Afghan border last September.
The announcement of Afridi's sentence came days after Barack Obama snubbed Asif Ali Zardari by refusing to hold a formal bilateral meeting with the Pakistani president at the Nato conference in Chicago.
The Americans are furious that Zardari's government has refused to lift a six-month long ban on Nato supply trucks passing through Pakistani territory.
US and Pakistani officials give different accounts of the importance of Afridi's work in determining bin Laden's whereabouts. The US has long maintained that policymakers were far from being completely sure the terrorist leader was in the house when the raid was launched.
However, Pakistani officials recently told The Guardian that although the nurses working for Afridi were not allowed to vaccinate anyone they did succeed in getting a mobile phone number for someone inside the bin Laden compound.
The Pakistani sources say that phone call allowed the CIA to make a voice match to bin Laden's private courier, a man known as Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti.
All of the 17 health workers who assisted Afridi on the vaccination drive were sacked in March after being officially criticised for acting "against the national interest".

Aid under threat

Pakistan's aid community is still reeling from Dr Shakil Afridi's clandestine activities to pinpoint the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden.
In a country in which well-meaning health workers can struggle to reach conservative or conflict-torn areas where outsiders are unwelcome, Afridi's work with the CIA has undermined their efforts.
With his band of 17 health workers, Afridi pretended to be running a hepatitis B vaccination campaign. In fact they were only interested in collecting DNA that might link people in Abbottabad with Bin Laden.
There are fears that the exposure of the ruse has helped to link public health campaigns with foreign spies.
That is all the more unfortunate given Afridi's prior history working on polio vaccination campaigns in Pakistan's restless tribal areas.
Pakistan is one of just three countries that have failed to eradicate the disease that leaves children with withered legs. Despite polio eradication being a government priority, as many as 200,000 children were not vaccinated in the past two years.
Save the Children has been particularly badly affected by the saga. Afridi reportedly told investigators from Pakistan's military intelligence agency that he was originally introduced to the CIA by the aid organisation – a claim Save the Children denies.
The organisation has since faced a number of problems, including staff being refused visas and the blocking of vital medical supplies from coming into the country.
The aid community is so disconcerted by the affair that in March a coalition of 200 organisations wrote to David Petraeus, director of the CIA, protesting about the use of a doctor to track down bin Laden.
Jon Boone

Sunday, June 3, 2012

US drones kill five militants in Pakistan

   US drone strikes targeting a militant compound in Pakistan's northwestern tribal area killed at least five insurgents on Sunday, security officials said, the second attack in 24 hours.
Two US drones fired four missiles at a house belonging to a militant commander in Wacha Dana town, 10 kilometres (six miles) west of Wana, the main town in the South Waziristan tribal district near the Afghan border, Pakistani security officials said.
"At least five militants have died. The house has been badly destroyed," a security official told AFP, on condition of anonymity.
Two other security officials confirmed the strikes. One intelligence officer put the toll at six dead.
Sunday's attack in South Waziristan was the second in as many days and comes amid an upsurge in drone strikes in Pakistan since a NATO conference on Afghanistan in Chicago last month.
Washington considers Pakistan's semi-autonomous northwestern tribal belt the main hub of Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants plotting attacks on the West and in Afghanistan.
Pakistani-US relations went into freefall last year.
There were hit when a CIA contractor shot dead two Pakistanis and dented further by an American raid that killed Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden and by US air strikes in November that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
After the air strikes, Pakistan shut its Afghan border to NATO supplies and ordered US staff out of an air base reportedly used as a hub for drones.
Seven US drone strikes have been reported since May's Chicago summit, which failed to secure a deal on resuming the supply lines.
In March, Pakistan's parliament agreed to reset US relations on condition that Washington apologise for the troops' deaths and end drone attacks on its soil.
Pakistan has been incensed by Washington's refusal to apologise for the November air strikes and US officials have so far rejected Pakistani proposals to charge several thousand dollars for each alliance truck crossing the border.
Islamabad, which is understood to have given its tacit approval for attacks on Al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in the past, has become increasingly vocal in its opposition to the perceived violation of national sovereignty.
Despite Pakistani criticism US officials are believed to consider the drone attacks too useful to stop them altogether. They have argued that drone strikes are a valuable weapon in the war against Islamist militants.
According to an AFP tally, 45 US missile strikes were reported in Pakistan's tribal belt in 2009, the year US President Barack Obama took office, 101 in 2010 and 64 in 2011.
The New America Foundation think-tank in Washington says drone strikes have killed between 1,715 and 2,680 people in Pakistan in the past eight years.

Monday, January 9, 2012

U.S. condemns reported Iran death sentence for former U.S. Marine

The State Department said Monday that it was working to confirm Iranian state media reports that an Iran court had sentenced an American citizen, Amir Mirzaei Hekmati, to death on charges of spying for the CIA.
"If true, we strongly condemn this verdict," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a press statement Monday. "Allegations that Hekmati either worked for, or was sent to Iran by the CIA, are simply untrue."
Hekmati "has 20 days to appeal the court's decision," the Washington Post's Thomas Erdbrinkreported from Tehran.
Hekmati, 28, a former U.S. Marine Arabic language translator in Iraq, was born in Flagstaff, Arizona of Iranian descent and raised in Michigan. His family in Michigan, former colleagues and American officials say Hekmati never served in the CIA and was in Iran to visit his grandmother.
Hekmati's parents said they "are shocked and terrified" by the news, his mother Behnaz Hekmatiwrote at the website the family set up to advocate for Amir's release, FreeAmir. "We believe that this verdict is the result of a process that was neither transparent nor fair."
Amir Hekmati on vacation in Colombia in 2010. (Courtesy of Hekmati family/Yahoo News)

"Amir did not engage in any acts of spying, or 'fighting against God,' as the convicting Judge has claimed in his sentence," his mother's press statement continues. "A grave error has been committed, and we have authorized our legal representatives to make direct contact with the Iranian authorities to find a solution to this misunderstanding."
Hekmati had the permission of the Iranian interests section--the U.S.-based diplomatic outpost for the Islamic republic--in Washington D.C. to travel to Iran in August to visit his elderly grandmother, his family has told Yahoo News. After his arrest on August 29, Iranian officials initially urged the family to keep quiet in order to facilitate his release.
But in December, Iranian state media aired video of Hekmati allegedly confessing to having worked as a CIA agent--charges his family and friends vehemently deny and which they said appear to have been given under duress.
Hekmati joined the Marines in 2001 after graduating from high school. He was posted to Iraq after attending language school in Monterey, Calif. He left the Marines in 2005, and later worked for various companies, including based in Kansas for the government contractor BAE Systems from March until September 2010, Yahoo News previously reported.
Former U.S. Marine Jared Bystrom told Yahoo News Tuesday that Hekmati called him last year to propose launching a business together. Bystrom and Hekmati had been posted by the Marines to the defense language school in Monterey, California in 2001, where Hekmati studied Arabic.
Another friend and former colleague of Hekmati's, Chase Winter, told Yahoo News last month that Hekmati had told him he was thinking of going back to school to get a business degree.  Hekmati visited Winter in South America last September 2010 for a week's vacation, Winter said.
Hekmati's Facebook page until shortly after his Iran TV video "confession" last month featured photos of himself in various locales he had traveled and worked--hardly demonstrating the behavior of someone trying to conceal his activities, his associates note.
American officials again called on Monday for the Iran government to give Swiss diplomats consular access to Hekmati, to allow him to meet with a lawyer, and to release him "without delay."
"Securing the freedom and safety of this young man is the top concern of the U.S. government in this case," a U.S. official who requested anonymity said Monday. "Unfortunately, the Iranian government is not doing the right thing here.  They have a track record of falsely accusing individuals of espionage for leverage."

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Iran threatens U.S. Navy as sanctions hit economy

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran threatened on Tuesday to take action if the U.S. Navy moves an aircraft carrier into the Gulf, Tehran's most aggressive statement yet after weeks of saber-rattling as new U.S. and EU financial sanctions take a toll on its economy.
The United States dismissed the Iranian threat, saying it was proof that sanctions imposed over Iran's nuclear program were working. The Pentagon said it would keep sending carrier strike groups through the Gulf regardless.
The prospect of sanctions targeting the oil sector in a serious way for the first time has hit Iran's rial currency, which reached a record low on Tuesday and has fallen by 40 percent against the dollar in the past month.
Queues formed at Tehran banks and some currency exchange offices shut their doors as Iranians scrambled to buy dollars to protect their savings. World oil prices jumped more than 4 percent.
Army chief Ataollah Salehi said the United States had moved an aircraft carrier out of the Gulf because of Iran's naval exercises, and Iran would take action if the ship returned.
"Iran will not repeat its warning ... the enemy's carrier has been moved to the Sea of Oman because of our drill. I recommend and emphasize to the American carrier not to return to the Persian Gulf....we are not in the habit of warning more than once," he said.
The Pentagon appeared to walk a delicate line, assuring more "regularly scheduled movements" of aircraft carrier strike groups into the Gulf, but stopping short of announcing any special activity in response to the Iranian threat.
"The deployment of U.S. military assets in the Persian Gulf region will continue as it has for decades," the Pentagon said.
The aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis leads a U.S. Navy task force in the region. It is now outside the Gulf in the Arabian Sea, providing air support for the war in Afghanistan, said Lieutenant Rebecca Rebarich, spokeswoman for the 5th Fleet.
The carrier left the Gulf on December 27 on a planned routine transit through the Strait of Hormuz, she said.
Forty percent of the world's traded oil flows through that narrow straight - which Iran threatened last month to shut if sanctions halted its oil exports.
Brent crude futures were up more than $4 in late Tuesday afternoon trade in London, pushing above $111 a barrel.
Asked at the Pentagon whether there was any U.S. military plan to bolster its presence in the Gulf or test the Iranian threat, spokesman George Little said: "No one in this government seeks confrontation over the Strait of Hormuz."
"It is important to lower the temperature," he said.
Tehran's latest threat comes at a time when sanctions are having an impact on its economy, and the country faces political uncertainty with an election in March, its first since a 2009 vote that triggered countrywide demonstrations.
The West has imposed the increasingly tight sanctions over Iran's nuclear program, which Tehran says is strictly peaceful but Western countries believe aims to build an atomic bomb.
After years of measures that had little impact, the new sanctions are the first that could have a serious effect on Iran's oil trade, which is 60 percent of its economy.
Sanctions signed into law by U.S. President Barack Obama on New Year's Eve would cut financial institutions that work with Iran's central bank off from the U.S. financial system, blocking the main path for Iran to receive payments for its crude.
The EU is expected to impose new sanctions by the end of this month, possibly including a ban on oil imports and a freeze of central bank assets.
Even Iran's top trading partner China - which has refused to back new global sanctions against Iran - is demanding discounts to buy Iranian oil as Tehran's options narrow. Beijing has cut its imports of Iranian crude by more than half for January.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the latest Iranian threat "reflects the fact that Iran is in a position of weakness." State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said it showed international pressure was "beginning to bite."
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu will visit his counterpart in Tehran on Wednesday to discuss Iran's nuclear program and developments in Iraq and Syria.
Iran has responded to the tighter measures with belligerent rhetoric, spooking oil markets briefly when it announced last month it could prevent shipping through the Strait of Hormuz.
It then held 10 days of naval exercises in the Gulf, test firing missiles that could hit U.S. bases in the Middle East. Tuesday's apparent threat to take action against the U.S. Navy in international waters takes the rhetoric to a new level.
Experts still say they do not expect Tehran to charge headlong into an act of war - the U.S. Navy is overwhelmingly more powerful than Iran's sea forces - but Iran is running out of diplomatic room to avert a confrontation.
"I think we should be very worried because the diplomacy that should accompany this rise in tension seems to be lacking on both sides," said Richard Dalton, former British ambassador to Iran and now an associate fellow at Chatham House think tank.
"I don't believe either side wants a war to start. I think the Iranians will be aware that if they block the Strait or attack a U.S. ship, they will be the losers. Nor do I think that the U.S. wants to use its military might other than as a means of pressure. However, in a state of heightened emotion on both sides, we are in a dangerous situation."
Henry Wilkinson at Janusian Risk Advisory consultants said the threats might be a bid by Iran to remind countries contemplating sanctions of the cost of havoc on oil markets.
"Such threats can cause market confidence in the global oil supply to wobble and can push up oil prices and shipping insurance prices. For the EU powers debating new sanctions, this could be quite a pinch in the current economic climate."
The new U.S. sanctions law, if implemented fully, would make it impossible for many refineries to pay Iran for crude. It takes effect gradually and lets Obama grant waivers to prevent an oil price shock, so its precise impact is hard to gauge.
The European Union is expected to consider new measures by the end of this month. The sanctions would halt purchase of Iranian oil by EU members such as crisis-hit Greece, which has relied on easy financing terms offered by Tehran to buy crude.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Paris wants new measures taken by January 30, when EU foreign ministers meet. A German Foreign Ministry spokesman said Berlin was in talks with other EU states on "qualitatively new sanctions."
Greek government sources said that Athens, thought of as a possible veto-wielding holdout, was ready to support sanctions. One official told Reuters: "If the European Union decides to impose the sanctions, Greece will join them."
Michael Mann, spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said member states would discuss the issue this week in the hope of agreeing on new steps before the January 30 meeting. "The ball is still in the Iranians' court," he said.
Iran has written to Ashton asking to restart talks over its nuclear program that collapsed a year ago. The EU says it does not want talks unless Iran is prepared to discuss serious steps, such as halting its enrichment of uranium.
Although China, India and other countries are unlikely to sign up to any oil embargo, tighter Western sanctions mean such customers will be able to insist on deeper discounts for Iranian oil, reducing Tehran's income.
Beijing has already been driving a hard bargain. China, which bought 11 percent of its oil from Iran during the first 11 months of last year, has cut its January purchase by about 285,000 barrels per day, more than half of the close to 550,000 bpd that it bought through a 2011 contract.
The impact of falling government income from oil sales can be felt on the streets in Iran in soaring prices for state subsidized goods and a collapse of the rial currency.
"The rate is changing every second ... We are not taking in any rials to change to dollars or any other foreign currency," said Hamid Bakshi at an exchange office in central Tehran.
The economic impact is being felt ahead of a nationwide parliamentary election on March 2, the first vote since a disputed 2009 presidential election that brought tens of thousands of Iranian demonstrators into the streets.
In a sign of political tension among Iran's elite, a court jailed the daughter of powerful former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani on Tuesday for "anti-state propaganda."
Rafsanjani sided with reformists during the 2009 protests. Daughter Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani went on trial last month on charges of "campaigning against the Islamic establishment."
(Additional reporting by Hashem Kalantari in Tehran, Humeyra Pamuk in Dubai, Brian Love in Paris, Keith Weir and William Maclean in London; Angeliki Koutantou in Athens, Florence Tan in Singapore, Phil Stewart, Matt Spetalnick and Andrew Quinn in Washington; Writing by Peter Graff and Phil Stewart; Editing by Eric Beech and Matthew Jones)