U.S. President-elect Donald Trump could change the fate of a Pakistani man.
Shakil Afridi now languishes in a prison cell in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.
But if Trump keeps his word, the former physician might be freed and even celebrated for helping the United States track down the world’s most wanted man, Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden.
Afridi’s fate now hangs in the balance. In 2012, he received a 33-year jail sentence, which was reduced to 23 years in 2014. He was convicted under an archaic colonial-era law for paying ransom to an extremist group in his native Khyber tribal district.
Afridi, 50, denies any wrongdoing. The hard-line Lashkar-e Islam group abducted him in 2008, and his family says paying a ransom was the only option to save Afridi's life.
He was arrested by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency in 2011 soon after the May 2 raid by U.S. Navy SEALS that killed Bin Laden in the northwestern Pakistani city of Abbottabad.
His arrest was connected to his role in allegedly carrying out a fake vaccination campaign to track Bin Laden for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in the months leading up to the raid. A Pakistani government panel that investigated the raid even recommended Afridi be tried for treason.
In April, Trump said if elected he would intervene to set Afridi free.
“I think I would get him [Afridi] out in two minutes,” he told Fox News. "I would tell them let [him] out, and I'm sure they would let [him] out because we give a lot of aid to Pakistan."
The assertion provoked a strong reaction from Islamabad. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan urged Trump to treat his sovereign nation with respect.
“Contrary to Mr. Trump's misconception, Pakistan is not a colony of the United States of America," Khan told reporters. “[Afridi's fate will be decided] by the Pakistani courts and the government of Pakistan and not by Mr. Donald Trump, even if he becomes the president of the United States."
Now that Trump is president-elect, the issue is likely to figure prominently in the bilateral relations between the two countries.
Michael Kugelman, a scholar at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson Center think tank, says it could even add tensions to the relationship.
“[Trump’s] demand for the release of Shakil Afridi could introduce new tensions into an already volatile relationship,” he told Pakistani daily The News.
During the past five years, Washington has consistently pushed for Afridi’s freedom.
In May, the U.S. House of Representatives adopted a defense policy bill. One of its amendments noted a “sense of the Congress” that Afridi was a hero and called for his immediate release.
In May 2012, as a symbolic rebuke for Afridi sentence, the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously voted to cut aid to Pakistan by $33 million.
Senior U.S. government leaders repeatedly called for his release.
In September 2012, former U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta confirmed that Afridi helped the hunt for Bin Laden.
“He was not, in any way, treasonous toward Pakistan. He was not, in any way, doing anything that would have undermined Pakistan,” he noted. “Pakistan and the United States have a common cause here against terrorism. ... And for them to take this kind of action against somebody who was helping to go after terrorism, I just think is a real mistake on their part.”
In May 2012, Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time of the Bin Laden raid, called for his release. She said Washington regretted the conviction and the severity of Afridi’s sentencing.
“His help, after all, was instrumental in taking down one of the world’s most notorious murderers. That was clearly in Pakistan’s interests,” she said.