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We Spoke to the Lawyer Facing Death Threats for Defending the Doctor Who Helped Find Bin Laden

Nadeem Qamar is the last remaining lawyer representing Dr. Shakil Afridi after another attorney was assassinated in Pakistan on Tuesday. He told VICE News that the case is the "world's greatest conspiracy."

by Mohammad Zubair Khan and Sally Hayden
Mar 19 2015, 12:15pm

Photo by Mohammad Sajjad/AP

The last remaining lawyer representing Shakil Afridi — the Pakistani doctor who allegedly helped the CIA confirm the location of Osama bin Laden's hideout in Pakistan — says that his client is a "scapegoat" in the "world's greatest conspiracy."

Speaking exclusively to VICE News, attorney Nadeem Qamar claimed his client is merely a pawn in a unique and "politicized" case. He vowed to continue fighting for justice despite the shocking assassination of Afridi's former lawyer, Samiullah Afridi, on Tuesday.

Shakil Afridi led a hepatitis B vaccination campaign in 2011 that was conducted with the aim of helping the CIA obtain DNA samples to verify that Bin Laden was living in a compound in the northeastern city of Abbottabad. Afridi was arrested three weeks after the al Qaeda leader was killed in a raid by Navy SEALs in May 2011, though the doctor was charged with aiding a warlord — not anything connected with the CIA.

"The world's greatest manhunt was in fact the world's greatest conspiracy," Qamar said. "In my own opinion I feel that America and Pakistan both scapegoat Dr. Afridi. Both countries are hiding some facts from the people and from the media."

Qamar added that American authorities have done "practically nothing" for Afridi and his family. "In my opinion, now, his family's life is worse than worse," he said. "I can evaluate it and it's terrible."

On Tuesday, attorney Samiullah Afridi was shot dead in Peshawar. Samiullah had given up Shakil's case and fled to Dubai because of security concerns, but returned to the country for a visit. Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a Taliban splinter group, claimed responsibility for the assassination, according to Pakistan's Express Tribune.

Related: Millions of Pakistanis have to give their fingerprints to keep using cellphones. 

"We claim responsibility for the killing of Shakil Afridi's defense lawyer," Ehsanullah Ehsan, a spokesman for the militant group, told the newspaper. "Others who linked themselves to Afridi's case should expect such action."

Qamar told VICE News that Samiullah quit the case after his family and friends were threatened, and that his departure was "a big loss." When the lawyers first began defending Afridi, Qamar added, there were eight advocates on the panel. Now he is the only one.

* * *

Bin Laden's death in the early morning hours of May 2, 2011 was the dramatic and violent finale to a long intelligence-gathering operation.

Domestically, Pakistanis were both angry that a US raid infringed on their sovereignty, and suspicious that the Pakistani government had known Bin Laden's location all along.

The public bewilderment and outcry resulted in a fact-finding inquiry — commissioned by the Pakistani government and carried out by the country's Supreme Court. The subsequent report, published in July 2013, called the US operation a "major violation of Pakistan's sovereignty and territorial integrity."

'He has become a shuttlecock between two countries; two countries' politics.'

One section of the report focused specifically on Afridi's role. It recorded his testimony as saying he was employed as the "Agency Doctor" in his locale when he encountered Michael McGrath, the country director for Save the Children. After several meetings, McGrath introduced Afridi to an American woman named "Kate." In January 2011, "Kate" contacted him to ask him to launch a vaccination campaign in Abbottabad.

Afridi agreed and said that there was nothing unusual or suspicious about the proposition. The campaign was publicly advertised and in no way secretive. It was launched in March 2011 and extended in April after Afridi received a phone call from another American woman named "Sue," who requested that he target a particular area.

Afridi claimed he never actually entered Bin Laden's compound after being told there was a "feud" between the inhabitants and their neighbors, though the "local lady supervisor" that was with him rang the doorbell and phoned the inhabitants. The doctor stated that he had no idea what was said during this call.

The campaign was completed on April 23 and the US raided Bin Laden's house nine days later.

Afridi was arrested on May 23 and moved between Peshawar and Abbottabad, and then to solitary confinement in Islamabad for a week, a stretch he described as "the worst days of my life." He was later interrogated by the Pakistan intelligence services in Peshawar for 35 days, though he was not charged or brought before a magistrate. Afridi was later convicted and sentenced to 33 years in prison on charges that he financially and medically aided a local warlord.

VICE News obtained copies of Afridi's court documents. The first ruling in the court of the Assistant Political Agent says he was "in league" and participating in "anti-state activities" with Lashkar-e-Islam, a terrorist group affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban. The document states Afridi's love of Mangal Bagh, the group's leader, "was an open secret."

Related: Pakistan paramilitary force raids headquarters of major political party. 

The financial aspect of the charges seems to relate to the fact that his family paid a ransom in 2008 after he was kidnapped on his way home from a medical training program.

After he was abducted and released, Afridi moved briefly to California in 2009. But he was denied political asylum and — as a trained doctor — he wasn't happy working in service jobs, and so he returned to Pakistan and later became involved with Save the Children.

Save the Children has denied any involvement with the CIA.

* * *

Qamar, Afridi's attorney, comes from the Khyber Agency in Pakistan's tribal areas. He has been a senior practicing lawyer for 17 years and is considered an expert on criminal law, focusing on the specific set of laws that govern the tribal areas in Pakistan's northwest.

Qamar said Afridi's appeal is currently pending, but the FATA Tribunal — the court designated to hear the appeal — "is not functional and no one knows when it will start work."

"It's not bright, and there's not much hope," Qamar said. "His case was politicized. He has become a shuttlecock between two countries; two countries' politics."

Qamar denied that his client had links to terrorist groups.

"I don't know why Dr. Shakil would need to do that," he said. "He was the head of the health department, and secondly, when he was indicted with the CIA fake vaccination program, militant groups threatened him. So in my personal opinion it is not possible."

Asked whether he believes Afridi was involved with the CIA, Qamar said he doesn't know, but that there is "a conspiracy" against his client, and that Afridi had told him that both the Pakistani government and the Abbottabad Health Department were on board with the vaccination program.

"Everything was crystal clear," Qamar said. "I did not get the sense that only Dr. Afridi was involved in the hunt for the world's most wanted man. There is something which they [the government] want to hide and they are still proving successful at it. I feel that they want to hide some facts which may be startling if disclosed."

Qamar said he hasn't received any direct threats against his life personally, "but my family and friends often feel that it's dangerous for me," and have requested that he stop representing the doctor. He said he had no plans to quit. "I am a lawyer, my duty is to pave the way of justice," he said. "And I am committed to justice for everyone."

Qamar said he didn't know Afridi personally before this case, and became involved because he "felt that this is a challenging case."

The attorney said the doctor told him he refused to make a statement in front of the Abbottabad Commission because he hadn't been granted complete privacy and the withdrawal of a spy agency official.

The Abbottabad Commission suggested Afridi be charged with high treason, and said that "only a fair trial based on due process can establish the extent and nature of his involvement." However, Qamar doesn't think this will happen. He said that the laws in the tribal area offer a "very simple and easy way to keep Dr. Afridi behind bars for a long time under this black law."

He added that, "if they brought a high treason case against him then the trial would have to proceed in the settled area of Pakistan," such as in the High or Supreme Courts in Peshawar, Abbottabad, or Islamabad.

Related: Afghanistan confirms new polio cases as Pakistan's outbreak reaches grim milestone. 

In 2012, Fox News managed to conduct an interview with Afridi from behind bars. The doctor said he had been blindfolded for eight months and handcuffed throughout the first year of his imprisonment — though his situation had improved since. Several prison guards lost their jobs after the interview was published, and Afridi was banned from receiving visitors.

"After that interview Dr. Afridi's woes became much greater than before the interview," Qamar said.

The attorney said has only been allowed to visit Afridi once, in 2012, though attempts to gain further access are ongoing. Most recently, he has submitted a writ petition to the Peshawar High Court.

"I heard that he was confined to a small jail cell, not allowed for walks and other activities which are allowed for other prisoners," Qamar said. He added that he believes Afridi faces a threat inside the Peshawar prison from the large number of militants held there.

According to Qamar, Afridi's family is not allowed to visit him. The attorney said Afridi has three children — two sons and a daughter — and he believes they are currently in hiding somewhere in Pakistan.

"I have not asked for a meeting because I know that their lives are in danger," he said.

Follow Mohammad Zubair Khan on Twitter: @HazaraZubair

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd