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Pakistani doctor accused of helping U.S. gets 33 years in prison

From Reza Sayah, CNN
May 24, 2012 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: U.S. senators reject treason claim, call sentence "shocking and outrageous"
  • Hillary Clinton intervened on Shakeel Afridi's behalf, an official says
  • Afridi was accused of helping collect DNA from Osama bin Laden's compound
  • He was sentenced by a tribal court; a legal analyst calls the sentence a sham

Islamabad, Pakistan (CNN) -- A Pakistani doctor accused of helping the CIA track down Osama bin Laden was sentenced Wednesday to 33 years in prison for treason, officials told CNN.

Shakeel Afridi was also fined $3,500 for spying for the United States, said Nasir Khan, a Khyber Agency official, and Fazal Mehmood, an official from the tribal court that handed down the sentence.

The court heard the case against Afridi for two months. The doctor was not afforded a chance to defend himself, which is in accordance with the laws of the tribal justice system, the two officials said.

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Afridi was present at the sentencing and was sent to the central jail in nearby Peshawar.

Afridi helped the CIA use a vaccination campaign in an attempt to collect DNA samples from residents of bin Laden's compound in the city of Abbottabad to verify the al Qaeda leader's presence there.

Bin Laden was killed in the subsequent U.S. raid on the compound in May of last year.

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At least one legal analyst said Afridi's sentence was a sham.

Islamabad-based lawyer Shahzad Akbar said the punishment was handed down by a tribal court in Khyber even though the alleged offense occurred in Abbottabad, which raises questions about the legitimacy of the proceedings.

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"This judgment won't last," Akbar 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."

Human rights groups have often accused tribal courts of violating the fair trial process guaranteed under Pakistan's constitution.

Akbar said the Afridi ruling could be a move by the government to save face without making a spectacle out of a sensitive situation.

In a federal court, the government would have had to produce evidence, and Afridi would have the right to defend himself.

"There is ample case law that says this process is cheating against the laws and constitution of Pakistan," Akbar said.

Afridi can appeal the sentence, said Tariq Hayat Khan, a senior official in the tribal region.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton intervened on behalf of Afridi when he was first arrested, a senior U.S. official told CNN. Clinton argued that Afridi should be released and "will keep doing so," the official said.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has acknowledged Afridi's role in bin Laden's discovery, saying he was extremely helpful in the operation against the al Qaeda leader.

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A statement from U.S. Sens. John McCain, R-Arizona, and Carl Levin, D-Michigan, who both sit on the Armed Services Committee, also said that Afridi's actions were far from treason and that the sentence was "shocking and outrageous."

"Dr. Afridi set an example that we wish others in Pakistan had followed long ago," the lawmakers said, "He should be praised and rewarded for his actions, not punished and slandered."

Afridi was charged under the Frontier Crimes Regulation, British-era laws that govern Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal region and do not carry the death penalty.

In October, a Pakistani commission recommended treason charges be filed against Afridi. A federal investigation is ongoing, according to a government official close to the investigation who is not authorized to speak to the media.

The official was not clear on how Wednesday's sentencing would affect the federal case.

CNN's Elise Labott contributed to this report.

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