The doctor who helped the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) hunt down Osama Bin Laden – by running a fake vaccination campaign in 2011 – is being held in a high-security prison in Pakistan’s central Punjab, where he has reportedly been in very poor health.

Sources among Dr Shakil Afridi’s family and his lead attorney have confirmed that the jail authorities do not allow his lawyers to meet him. The family is also not permitted to deliver everyday essentials to Afridi, who is incarcerated in a tiny cell just 1.5 square meters (5×5 ft) in size in a heavily fortified jail equipped with high-tech security.

The prison in Sahiwal, where Dr Afridi is in solitary confinement, was built for dangerous and high profile prisoners from all over the country.

It has an automatic locking system for each cell and state-of-the-art gadgetry including CCTV cameras, computers, delta barriers, jamming devices, walkthrough gates, and watchtowers. A five-layer security cover and round-the-clock patrolling by elite Police commandoes make it the most protected jail in Pakistan.

His elder brother Jameel told Asia Times: “The facilities normally available to common prisoners under the jail manual are denied to Dr Afridi. The authorities gave me his soap, razor, towel, toothpaste, brushes, slippers, joggers, socks and vests last time I visited him in Sahiwal.”

He said Shakil’s health was deteriorating in the small detention cell where mosquitoes buzz around at night. “They turned over his prayer beads and prayer mats and refused to allow these items in the cell. The jail authorities did not even allow hair dye, which I bought for him,” Jamal lamented.

Last week, Pakistan’s newly appointed Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi was in New York for the United Nations General Assembly. During an interview with Fox News, he gave an assurance that the government was still considering whether to release Shakil Afridi.

“He is viewed as a traitor in Pakistan but a friend in the US. So we have to bridge this gap,” Fox News quoted him as saying. He claimed that Dr Afridi had undergone a legal process in Pakistan and was given a fair chance to plead his case. “He was sentenced, convicted and [is] serving a sentence and we expect you would respect our legal process, as we respect yours,” Qureshi added.

Case blocking better ties with US: lawyer

Qamar Nadeem, Dr Afridi’s lead attorney, said: “The frosty relations with the US cannot be normalized until Pakistan sympathetically reconsiders the plight of Afridi’s family, withdraws all cases against him and allows him to join his family as a free citizen.”

He alluded to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent visit to Islamabad, saying the government would give a boost to US-Pakistan relations if Afridi was set free. “Whatever effort they make in trying to normalize the [bilateral] relationship will not be effective until a decision is taken to determine the fate of Dr Afridi.”

The lawyer said Dr Afridi was convicted in a concocted case for helping the CIA locate Bin Laden, an act that Pakistani authorities believed was “treasonous.”

He said the charge of funding, harboring, facilitating the Lashkar e-Islam terrorist group was a way to cover the anger of the establishment. “He is languishing in jail for years facing phony charges that were never substantiated at any stage of his protracted legal battle,” Nadeem claimed.

US Special Forces raided the Bin Laden compound in Abbottabad on May 2, 2011 and killed the al-Qaeda leader. Dr Afridi was arrested a year later and given a 33-year sentence for colluding with a terror organization.

The charge was laid under the draconian Frontier Crime Regulation law. It did not mention his “treasonous collusion” to help the CIA locate Bin Laden. His lawyers denied that Dr Afridi had ties with the terror outfit, saying the charges were frivolous and fake.

Frontier Crime decisions now open to challenge

Interestingly, Parliament and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa state Assembly passed a law in May called the Twenty-Fifth Amendment Act that withdrew the Frontier Crime Regulation and separate status of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

The passage of this Act extended the jurisdiction of High Court to the tribal region and opened the door for Frontier Crime Regulation decisions to be challenged via higher courts. The legal fraternity speculated that the sweeping change made in the status of Tribal Areas would also affect Dr Afridi’s conviction.

His lawyer Nadeem said: “Yes, Dr Shakil’s conviction will now have the locus standi [right to bring an action] in the High Court and we have already filed a review petition in the FATA Tribunal but the tribunal is dysfunctional due to confusion over the FATA Interim Governance Regulation, 2018.

“Hopefully, Dr Shakil’s cases will be transferred to the High Court in the next two months,” he said, adding that interim regulations did not specify which forum would exercise revision or appeal court powers. The FATA Tribunal had stopped functioning and hundreds of review petitions, he said, were pending in the tribunal due to uncertainty.

Dr Afridi was remanded in custody for a “consecutive” term of 33 years under four sections of law. Three carried a 10-year punishment and one a three-year sentence. Later, judicial authorities set aside one section, reducing the total term to 23 years.

“If the government wanted, they could convert punishment to ‘concurrent term’ from ‘consecutive term’ to serve all the sentences at the same time. In that case, his 23-year sentence would be over in 10 years and he would be up for release now,” Nadeem said.