At Large

A Test of National Honor

So what is the U.S. going to do about the sentencing of Dr. Shakil Afridi?

By 5.25.12

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Tests of a nation's honor have a way of coming out of left field.

A Pakistani surgeon and senior medical administrator, Dr. Shakil Afridi, who apparently helped the CIA in finding Bin Laden, has been sentenced by a Pakistani tribal court to 33 years imprisonment for this crime, and fined 320,000 rupees.

He had worked for many years as a doctor in Pakistan's lawless tribal area. (The Afridis are reputed to be among the most ferocious of the Pathan tribes, with an explosive sense of personal honor. An Afridi flag carries pictures of a Lee-Enfield Rifle, and an AK-47, their most beloved weapons.) It is alleged that he obtained DNA samples from Bin Laden for the CIA under cover of a vaccination program.

Dr Shakil Afridi was not present in the tribal court and was not given a chance to defend himself.

It is a statement so obvious as to be hardly worth making that playing a part in bringing one of the worst mass-murderers in history to book, if true, should be a matter of reward, rather than a Draconian punishment which if it is carried out must mean a completely ruined life.

He is to serve the sentence in the Peshawar Central Jail. This is not a pleasant place at the best of times and his life in prison will plainly be at extreme risk from the Taliban and al Qaeda, who regard Bin Laden as a super-hero, in a culture steeped in traditions of blood-feuds and vengeance.

It has been suggested that the sentence is in retaliation for a supposed snub by President Obama to the Pakistani President and that it has the specific purpose of humiliating the U.S.

We do not know Dr. Shakil Afridi's motives, or how much truth there is in the accusation, but it is equally obvious that his action, if correctly reported, was done in the interests of a country that is officially an ally of Pakistan. Pakistan, of course, receives a great deal of U.S. and other Western aid. He did nothing to damage Pakistan's interests -- rather, he did what the Pakistani government should have been happy to do itself.

A resolution passed by the United Nations Security Council after 9/11 required member states to assist in bringing Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda network to justice.

The alleged charge is treason, though Dr. Shakil Afridi aided no enemies of Pakistan unless the U.S. is considered an enemy. He has simply given aid to the fight against international terrorism. Although tried under Pakistani tribal law, Dr. Shakil Afridi's "crime" was not even committed in Pakistani tribal territory. The sentencing court had no valid jurisdiction in the matter. Bin Laden himself -- assuming this is a consideration - was not even a Pakistani: He was born in Saudi Arabia and was ethnically a Yemeni.

The question is: what is the U.S. going to do about it?

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has called the sentence a "real mistake," a comment that seems somewhat feeble.

It is to be hoped that the U.S. is exerting stronger diplomatic pressure behind the scenes to have Dr. Shakil Afridi released and that he will be allowed to live in the U.S. If it fails to give him real help, the demonstration effect on America's friends and allies in the Muslim World (assuming Obama's diplomacy has left it with any), and indeed elsewhere, will be catastrophic. Further, in addition to both diplomatic and humanitarian considerations, U.S. honor is plainly at stake.

The case brings to mind the Don Pacifico incident of the 19th century.

Don Pacifico was a Portuguese Jew living in Greece whose business in Athens was destroyed by a mob of anti-Semitic rioters -- including the sons of a Greek government minister -- in 1847. The Greek police either did nothing or actively supported the riot.

Don Pacifico applied to the Greek government for compensation and was told, in effect, to get lost. Don Pacifico was plainly one of the little people who are ground like insects under the wheels of international politics. The fact he was a Jew probably did not increase sympathy for him.

But one little point of law had been overlooked when the Greek government threw out his claim: Don Pacifico had been born in Gibraltar and was therefore a British subject.

One morning shortly afterwards, the good citizens of Piraeus, the port for Athens, awoke to find their view of the sea had been embellished by the addition of a squadron of British battleships.

They blockaded the port for two months, until the Greek government had second thoughts and decided Don Pacifico had a case for compensation after all.

British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston said in Parliament: "As the Roman, in days of old, held himself free from indignity, when he could say, Civis Romanus sum [I am a Roman citizen], so also a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England will protect him from injustice and wrong."

The parallel is not exact -- Dr. Shakil Afridi is obviously not an American citizen -- and what to do in this case is not quite so obvious, but the principle at stake is the same.

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About the Author

Hal G.P. Colebatch, a lawyer and author, has lectured in International Law and International Relations at Notre Dame University and Edith Cowan University in Western Australia and worked on the staff of two Australian Federal Ministers.