ISLAMABAD—A few days ago I spoke to the Pakistani attorney Samiullah Afridi over the phone, and he was worried. He had defended in court Dr. Shakil Afridi, the physician widely alleged to have fingered Osama bin Laden for the American hit team that killed the terrorist mastermind in 2011, and he felt ever more exposed as a target for Osama’s admirers.
Late last year, Samiullah Afridi (no relation to his client) quit the case reluctantly under a barrage of death threats targeting him and his family. On Tuesday he was shot dead as he returned to his home in Peshawar. A Taliban splinter group, Jundullah, claimed responsibility.
“It was not an easy decision to defend Dr. Shakil Afridi in the court,” Samiullah had told me when we talked on the phone. “I knew the consequences from Day One and don’t mind it,” he claimed.
But he soon spoke about the many troubles he’d encountered, and the many threats that he and his family had received not only from al Qaeda and the Taliban but, he believed, from the Pakistan’s intelligence agencies as well.
Samiullah was deeply frustrated. Dr. Shakil had been hailed in the United States as a hero, and Washington pressured Pakistan to reverse the 33-year sentence its courts handed down. He is now awaiting a new trial. But Shakil told his attorney that he thinks the United States does not really want to get him out of jail, that if the Americans were honest they would have sent out a clear message to Pakistan to get him out. Samiullah said his client thinks he was used like a Kleenex by the U.S., then thrown away, left to survive as best he can in the hell of the Pakistani prison’s cages.
Samiullah said he, himself, had been told he could have the safety of exile. “I was given a chance to leave Pakistan and get asylum in the West, but I said it was my mission to get Dr. Shakil out of jail,” he told me, without specifying where the offer came from. In fact Samiullah spent much of the last year in Dubai.
“I have not been representing Dr. Shakil for the last three months but I still strongly believe he is innocent and does not deserve such treatment,” Samiullah said when we talked. “I am worried Dr. Shakil will be killed soon—that his life is in danger.”
But there seemed to be no way to get the Americans to act, said Samiullah, even if they wanted to. “Dr. Shakil’s case shows how much the United States is helpless and hopeless dealing with Pakistan,” he said. When no representative of the United States would meet with Shakil’s family there, Samiullah had to meet with American officials in Dubai, he said. They told him they could not help.
On Tuesday, Samiullah got three bullets in his head and chest.
How long Dr. Shakil will survive is an open question.
“The United States must rescue Dr. Shakil Afridi in return for his contribution finding Bin Laden,” says Peshawar-based journalist Shamim Shahid. “The murder of Samiullah will isolate Dr. Shakil. After his death it’s going to be hard to get another lawyer to represent him.”