Senate Panel Votes To Cut Pakistan Aid In Response To Sentence Against Bin Laden Raid Ally

Dr. Shakeel Afridi

Yesterday, a tribal court in Pakistan handed down a 33-year prison term for treason to the doctor who helped the CIA locate Osama Bin Laden in a Pakistani army garrison town. The verdict drew widespread attention in Washington, but Congress and the State Department are having very different reactions.

After Capitol HIll collectively expressed considerable outrage, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted unanimously to cut $33 million from Pakistan’s foreign aid package — $1 million for each year of the sentence against the doctor, Shakeel Afridi. The reduction comes on top of the more than 50 percent of the aid a Senate panel cut earlier this week.

But the U.S. State Department didn’t ramp up its rhetoric so dramatically, maintaining its position that Afridi is detained without basis. A spokesperson said the U.S. will continue to let the Pakistani government know about that position. The softer line might reflect the possibility that Afridi’s verdict could easily be overturned.

Afridi, who ran a vaccination drive to collect data that the U.S. has credited with helping to find Bin Laden, was tried under a British colonial-era law that does not carry a death penalty, according to the New York Times. (The L.A. Times reported that “Afridi could have been given the death penalty.”) Having never approved of his detention, however, the U.S. still objected to the sentence. Asked about the issue yesterday, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said:

We will – we continue to see no basis for Dr. Afridi to be held….

I think we’ve said that we don’t see any basis for what’s happened here, and so we will continue to make those representations to the Government of Pakistan.

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In February, Clinton said of Afridi: “His work on behalf of the effort to take down Bin Laden was in Pakistan’s interests as well as in America’s.” On CBS’s 60 Minutes in January, Panetta was more outspoken on the matter, calling actions against Afridi a “real mistake on their part” and crediting his help and making a case similar to Clinton’s:

This was an individual who in fact helped provide intelligence that was very helpful with regards to this operation. He was not in any way treasonous towards Pakistan, he was not in any way doing anything that would have undermined Pakistan. As a matter of fact, Pakistan and the United States have a common cause here against terrorism.

A Pakistani lawyer speaking to CNN said it was likely the case could be overturned — something Nuland subtly alluded to in the briefing when she said the legal process wasn’t necessarily complete. The lawyer, Shahzad Akbar, said that the tribal court is not based in Abbottabad, the site of the bin Laden raid. He told CNN: “If this punishment is challenged by Dr. Afridi’s family in the Superior Court of Pakistan, there is a good possibility that the sentence will be turned around.