Pakistan's new intelligence chief has postponed his first visit to Washington amid harsh U.S. criticism of the 33-year prison sentence imposed on Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani doctor convicted of treason for aiding the CIA's hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Lt. Gen. Zaheer ul-Islam, appointed in March to head the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, was set to meet this week with his U.S. counterpart, CIA Director David Petraeus, a Pakistani official said.
But Islam canceled the trip because of "pressing commitments here," the Pakistani military said in a brief statement Monday. "There is no other reason," it added.
A senior Pakistani official said increased bilateral tensions rooted in the Afridi case and a long-simmering dispute over Pakistan's refusal to reopen its territory to NATO supply convoys contributed to the postponement.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the CIA and the ISI are working on a new date for the meeting. A CIA spokesman did not respond Monday to an e-mailed request to comment.
The ISI detained Afridi, a government surgeon, three weeks after U.S. commandos killed bin Laden. Afridi, 48, ran a fake hepatitis vaccination drive to collect bin Laden's DNA as a way to verify the al-Qaida leader's presence in Abbottabad, the garrison town in Pakistan where he hid for six years until his death.
Senior U.S. officials and several members of Congress have expressed outrage at Pakistan's punishment of Afridi, lauding him as a hero and patriot. But Pakistani leaders call him a traitor who spied for a foreign power that launched an illegal unilateral operation.
Monday, relatives and supporters of Afridi said at a news conference in Peshawar that they will seek to overturn his conviction, handed down last week in a tribal court where Afridi was not given the right to present evidence or have an attorney.
"The United States should help us," Jamil Afridi, 50, the doctor's brother, said in an interview.
Peshawar prison authorities have barred him and the family's attorneys from communicating with Shakil Afridi, saying a no-visitors policy had been imposed for his safety. The doctor's wife and three children have not seen him for a year, according to Jamil Afridi.
Shakil Afridi has a right to an appeal under rules that govern the tribal areas, but lawyers seeking to represent him said they have been unable to obtain a copy of the court's verdict, which they need to file an appeal.
Pakistan has made clear that it considers the case an internal judicial matter and has otherwise not responded to U.S. calls for Afridi's release.