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Legal respite for doctor who helped CIA find Osama bin Laden

Pakistan yesterday overturned a 33-year jail sentence handed down to a doctor who helped CIA agents find Al Qaeda's leader, Osama bin Laden, a decision that may result in a new trial.

PESHAWAR // Pakistan yesterday overturned a 33-year jail sentence handed down to a doctor who helped CIA agents find Al Qaeda's leader, Osama bin Laden, a decision that may result in a new trial.

Shakil Afridi, hailed a hero by United States officials, was arrested after US special forces killed bin Laden in May 2011 in the town of Abbottabad, in a secret raid that outraged Pakistan and strained relations between the strategic allies.

Mr Afridi's conviction in 2012 further soured the atmosphere. US senators withheld US$33 million (Dh121.21m) in aid in retaliation.

Pakistani officials initially said Mr Afridi was charged with treason for helping the US, but court documents showed he was jailed for being a member of a militant group, Lashkar-e-Islam.

A senior judicial official, Sahibzada Mohammad Anees, overturned the ruling yesterday on the grounds that another official had exceeded his authority when handing down last year's sentence.

"The assistant political agent ... did not have the authority to award 33 years' imprisonment to Dr Shakil Afridi," he wrote. "The assistant political agent played the role of a magistrate, for which he was not authorised."

Mr Afridi was not present at yesterday's hearing in the city of Peshawar and remains in custody.

A political agent and his assistant are representatives of the Pakistani government in the semiautonomous tribal areas, which are not covered by the country's judicial system.

Mr Afridi was accused of running a fake vaccination campaign, in which he collected DNA samples, that is believed to have helped the American intelligence agency track down bin Laden.

Relations between Pakistan and the US have since slowly improved, but residual distrust lingers.

A new trial would raise the prospect of his release but if he were freed, Mr Afridi would probably have to leave Pakistan. Militant groups have long threatened to kill him, and Pakistani authorities have said they feared for his life even in jail.

His lawyer, Samiullah Afridi, said Mr Afridi planned to submit an application for an early hearing. He would also be allowed to use lawyers in the next trial, a legal privilege he was previously denied. Mr Afridi has denied the charges against him, and a spokesman for the militant group said it had no ties with him.

"Shakil was himself kidnapped by militants," Mr Afridi's lawyer said. "He had to pay a lot of money for his release. There is no question that a person like him would treat with militants or give them funds."

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