A Pakistani court imposed a 33-year sentence Wednesday on a doctor who assisted the CIA in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, prompting dismay among U.S. officials and warnings that the punishment will exacerbate already strained relations and could lead to cuts in aid.
Shakil Afridi, 48, a government surgeon in the semiautonomous Khyber Agency along the border with Afghanistan, was convicted of treason for using a vaccination drive to try to gather DNA samples from the Abbottabad compound where bin Laden was in hiding.
Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Carl M. Levin, D-Mich., and Joseph I. Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, called the verdict "shocking and outrageous" in a statement.
"What Dr. Afridi did is the furthest thing from treason. It was a courageous, heroic and patriotic act, which helped to locate the most wanted terrorist in the world -- a mass murderer who had the blood of many innocent Pakistanis on his hands," the statement said. "Dr. Afridi set an example that we wish others in Pakistan had followed long ago. He should be praised and rewarded for his actions, not punished and slandered."
McClatchy Newspapers revealed last July that Afridi had set up a fake health program in Abbottabad, sending health workers door to door to vaccinate residents for hepatitis B, in an effort to get DNA samples from the house where the CIA suspected that bin Laden lived.
American officials were never sure that bin Laden was in the home, to which they had traced a key al-Qaida courier. Afridi's work, carried out in the weeks leading up to the raid, was an important part of the CIA's attempts to verify that bin Laden was in the Abbottabad house before mounting a risky operation to kill him in another country. It remains unclear whether Afridi's efforts gained any useful information.
Afridi failed to obtain the DNA samples and didn't know the target of the program, but U.S. officials said he nonetheless contributed to an intelligence operation that culminated in the May 2, 2011, killing of bin Laden by a Navy SEALs team.
U.S. officials depicted Afridi as a patriot and said his actions saved both Pakistani and American lives. But in Pakistan, where the U.S. raid deep into the country led to national hand-wringing and anger, Afridi was widely excoriated as a traitor.
The CIA declined to comment Wednesday on Afridi's sentence. But a senior U.S. official with knowledge of counterterrorism operations in Pakistan said the surgeon "was never asked to spy on Pakistan."
"He was asked only to help locate al-Qaida terrorists, who threaten Pakistan and the U.S.," the official said. "His activities were not treasonous; they were heroic and patriotic."
Pentagon spokesman George Little said, "Anyone who helped the United States find bin Laden was working against al-Qaida and not against Pakistan."
The senators warned that "Dr. Afridi's continuing imprisonment and treatment as a criminal will only do further harm to U.S.-Pakistani relations, including diminishing Congress' willingness to provide financial assistance to Pakistan."
Afridi was arrested several weeks after the killing of bin Laden. The doctor was eventually tried under a tribal judicial system that denies the accused the right to have an attorney or to present evidence.
Under a recent change to Pakistan's much-despised criminal codes, created more than a century ago by the British rulers of the Indian subcontinent to put down tribal revolts, Afridi has the right to appeal to an agency tribunal.
Afridi was remanded to a jail in Peshawar and ordered to pay a fine amounting to about $3,500, Khyber Agency officials said.
Afridi could have received the death penalty if he had been tried under normal Pakistani law, but even so, the harsh sentence has added to tensions between Islamabad and Washington over issues that include ongoing CIA drone strikes and deadly exchanges between U.S. and Pakistani forces on the border with Afghanistan.
For six months, Pakistan has blocked NATO supply convoys from crossing its territory into Afghanistan in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at two border outposts in November. On Tuesday in Washington, a Senate panel approved a foreign aid budget that would cut U.S. assistance to Pakistan by more than half and allow deeper reductions if Pakistan does not reopen the supply routes.
Despite the recent tensions, Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said the relationship with Pakistan was showing signs of improvement. Allen recently traveled to Islamabad to discuss how to better coordinate military operations along the border with Afghanistan and the reopening of ground supply lines through Pakistan.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told the House Foreign Affairs Committee in March that Pakistan had no basis for holding Afridi. "His work on behalf of the effort to take down bin Laden was in Pakistan's interests as well as in America's," she said.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, speaking on CBS' "60 Minutes" in January, called Afridi's detention "a real mistake" by Pakistani authorities.
U.S.-Pakistani relations disintegrated last year over a series of clashes, including the bin Laden raid, culminating in a "friendly fire" episode in November in which American aircraft mistakenly attacked two Pakistani border outposts, killing 24 soldiers. In response, Pakistan stopped permitting NATO supplies headed for Afghanistan to pass through its territory.
American officials are likely to continue to press Pakistan for Afridi's release, though that negotiation will be harder now that he's been sentenced, as the diplomatic bargain required to free him will be costlier.
McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this report.