Pakistan retrial for doctor who helped find bin Laden

The Pakistani doctor jailed for 33 years after helping the CIA find Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had his sentence overturned on Thursday and faces a retrial, officials said.

Shakeel Afridi was arrested after US troops killed bin Laden in May 2011 in the town of Abbottabad. Islamabad branded the raid a violation of sovereignty and US relations fell to an all-time low.

Afridi was recruited by the CIA to run a vaccination programme in Abbottabad in the hope of obtaining DNA samples to identify bin Laden, although medics never managed to gain access to the family.

He was convicted of treason under Pakistan's tribal justice system in 2012 -- not for working for the CIA, for which the court said it had no jurisdiction -- but for alleged ties to militants.

Thursday's decision is likely to be welcomed in the United States, where angry lawmakers saw the original sentence as retaliation and threatened to freeze millions of dollars in vital aid to Pakistan.

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denounced Afridi's treatment as "unjust and unwarranted".

Afridi's lawyer told AFP on Thursday that the commissioner of the northwestern city of Peshawar had set aside the original verdict, handed down in May 2012, and ordered a retrial.

A government official who was present during the appeal hearing in the commissioner's office confirmed the account.

"The commissioner, after hearing the appeal by Doctor Shakeel Afridi, has ordered the retrial," he told AFP on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media.

Afridi had been found guilty under the tribal justice system of his home district of Khyber, part of Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal belt. He was jailed for 33 years and fined $3,500.

The appeal, filed by Afridi's brother Jamil through lawyers, said the allegations were "false, concocted and without foundation".

Afridi's brother Jamil welcomed the prospect of a fresh trial but complained that relatives had not been able to see him for a year.

"God willing, you will see that he is acquitted honourably because he is innocent and this is our first victory," Afridi told AFP.

"My brother has links neither with Mangal Bagh's group (Lashkar-e-Islam), nor did he spy on Osama," he said.

"Intelligence agencies kept him in confinement for one year, but could not prove anything against my brother."

Defence lawyer Samiullah Afridi argued that the official in Khyber had not been authorised to impose such a heavy sentence, there had been no proper trial and his client had not been able to defend himself.

Afridi was not present in court during his trial and could not argue in his own defence, officials said after his conviction. Under the tribal system, he would not have had access to a lawyer.

The appeal, filed on June 1, 2012, said Afridi was kidnapped by militant group Lashkar-e-Islam in 2008 and ordered to pay one million rupees ($10,660), but otherwise had no association with it.

Lashkar-e-Islam, led by warlord Mangal Bagh, is widely feared for kidnappings and extortion in Khyber, where Afridi worked for years.

The tribal court alleged that Afridi paid two million rupees to the militant group and helped to provide medical assistance to militant commanders in Khyber.

The militants have denied any links to Afridi, saying they fined him for overcharging patients, and have threatened to kill him.

The often troubled relationship between Pakistan and the United States has largely recovered since the all-time low suffered in the wake of bin Laden's killing.

Pakistan reacted furiously to what it called a violation of its sovereignty over the attack. It insisted it knew nothing about bin Laden's whereabouts.

Newly elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has signalled a desire to work effectively with Washington and has also won Western respect for his calls for dialogue with arch-foe India.