Tribal jurisdiction at issue in Pakistan treason case

Pakistani Dr. Shakeel Afridi was sentenced to 33 years in prison on treason charges May 23 for helping the US CIA locate Osama bin Laden, immediately sparking stateside outrage. US Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Carl Levin (D-MI) issued a joint letter, warning: "We call upon the Pakistani government to pardon and release Dr. Afridi immediately. At a time when the United States and Pakistan need more than ever to work constructively together, Dr. Afridi's continuing imprisonment and treatment as a criminal will only do further harm to US-Pakistani relations, including diminishing Congress's willingness to provide financial assistance to Pakistan." But there are a few complicating factors here...

CNN informs us: "Afridi helped the CIA use a vaccination campaign in an attempt to collect DNA samples from residents of bin Laden's compound in the city of Abbottabad to verify the al Qaeda leader's presence there." A commentary on Global Insight is virtually alone in raising ethical questions about use of the medical guise:

Aside from violating his Hippocratic oath, Afridi's decision to work for a foreign intelligence agency would be illegal in the US, just as it is in Pakistan. In March, a Virginia court sentenced a US citizen, Ghulam Nabi Fai, to two years in jail for working for Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency... Pakistani diplomats will probably raise this case in response to any US pressure to release Afridi.

Furthermore, it isn't clear that the Pakistani government even has the power to pardon Afridi. He was convicted and sentenced by a tribal court in Khyber Agency of the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA) under the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), which restricts the authority of Islamabad to intervene in the matter. Writes Pakistan's Express-Tribune:

Why he was tried and sentenced in Khyber Agency when the crime took place in Abbottabad, which is in the settled areas [Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province] and thereby under the jurisdiction of the Peshawar High Court remains to be answered. By trying him under the FCR—notwithstanding an unnamed government official telling news wires that he has the right of appeal—Article 247 of the Constitution effectively bars the high court or the Supreme Court from jurisdiction on this matter. And, to make the whole "trial" even more controversial, as perhaps is the norm in such matters under the FCR, the doctor did not have a lawyer.

McCain's huffing and puffing about a US aid cut-off, and portraying the case as an affront to the US, is surely counter-productive—especially as Washington routinely violates Pakistani sovereignty with the ongoing drone strikes. The more disturbing issue is that justice in large areas of Pakistan is farmed out to tribal jurisdictions that fall far short of international standards. Ironically, this is a legacy of British colonialism, which granted the border tribes autonomy in an effort to groom them as a proxy force in the Great Game—basically, to keep the Russians, or their own tribal proxies, at bay. In the Cold War, the US basically stepped into the shoes of the British, using the Pashtuns either side the "Durand Line" as a proxy force against Moscow and its own proxies. As this case indicates, things are considerably more complicated today. The falcon, it seems, can no longer hear the falconer...

See our last post on Pakistan.

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