Pakistani doctor Shakeel Afridi led a phony vaccination campaign that… (Qazi Rauf / Associated Press )
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A Pakistani doctor who led a phony vaccination campaign aimed at helping the CIA pinpoint Osama bin Laden's whereabouts was convicted of treason Wednesday and sentenced to 33 years in prison, a decision that is likely to further fray Washington's fragile relations with Islamabad.
U.S. officials have been seeking the release of Shakeel Afridi since his arrest by Pakistani authorities after the secret American commando raid that killed the Al Qaeda leader in his sprawling compound in the garrison city of Abbottabad a year ago.
In January, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told CBS' "60 Minutes" that Afridi had provided intelligence that assisted the raid and criticized Pakistan's arrest of someone involved in helping track down the world's most wanted man.
From the start, however, Pakistani authorities have regarded Afridi as a traitor and have ignored Washington's calls for his release. He was tried in a tribal court in Khyber, the region along the Afghan border where he had been the chief surgeon. The trial was held behind closed doors, and no media were allowed.
Under Pakistani law, Afridi could have been given the death penalty. In addition to prison, he was fined about $3,500.
The phony hepatitis B vaccination scheme Afridi oversaw was aimed at obtaining DNA evidence from Bin Laden's residence, a three-story compound down the road from Pakistan's version of West Point and just two hours' drive from the capital, Islamabad. DNA samples would have allowed U.S. authorities to compare that evidence with DNA from Bin Laden relatives that was on file in Washington.
It is not known when the CIA recruited Afridi for the vaccination ruse, but he carried it out in the weeks preceding the May 2, 2011, raid. The doctor and his team of healthcare workers were unable to obtain DNA samples from the Bin Laden compound, but Panetta told "60 Minutes" that he provided information to the agency that was "very helpful."
"For [Pakistan] to take this kind of action against somebody who was helping to go after terrorism, I just think is a real mistake on their part," Panetta said during the interview.
However, Afridi's vaccination ruse also severely hampered the work in Pakistan of numerous Western aid organizations, which reported being harassed by Pakistani intelligence agents suspicious of those groups' affiliations. Some have reported difficulties in getting visas renewed for their Pakistan-based workers, while others say they are under constant surveillance by authorities or have had workers detained.
A letter to the CIA in February by an alliance of nearly 200 U.S. aid and relief groups, many of which do work in Pakistan, sharply criticized the agency for using humanitarian work as a cover for intelligence gathering.
"Since reports of the CIA campaign first surfaced last summer, we have seen a continued erosion of U.S. NGOs' ability to deliver critical humanitarian programs in Pakistan as well as an uptick in targeted violence against humanitarian workers," wrote Samuel Worthington, president of InterAction, an alliance of nongovernmental organizations. "I fear the CIA's activities in Pakistan and the perception that U.S. NGOs have ties with intelligence efforts may have contributed to these alarming developments."
Afridi's conviction and sentencing come at a particularly sensitive time in U.S.-Pakistani relations, as both sides try to patch up an alliance battered by a series of crises over the last year and a half. Pakistanis were deeply angered by the Bin Laden raid, principally because Washington opted not to inform Islamabad in advance of the operation.
The relationship further deteriorated in November, when U.S. airstrikes mistakenly killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at their outposts near the Afghan border. Islamabad in effect froze ties with the U.S. after that incident and halted NATO's use of Pakistan as a transit country for fuel and nonlethal supplies destined for Western troops in Afghanistan.
Though Pakistan has signaled an interest in reopening those supply routes, it also wants the U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to agree to a massive increase in transit fees. Pakistan had been charging about $250 per truck and is now demanding at least $5,000 per truck. U.S. officials have called the demand excessive.
Special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.