Pakistan Orders Save the Children's Foreign Workers Out of the Country

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Lisa Mullins: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World. One of the largest aid-groups working in Pakistan got some bad news today. Pakistani authorities ordered the foreign staff at Save the Children to leave the country. No official reason was given, but it's widely believed that the expulsion order is related to the case of a Pakistani doctor who helped the CIA track down Osama Bin Laden last year. That doctor reportedly told Pakistani intelligence agents that he was introduced to the CIA by an official with Save the Children. Declan Walsh is the New York Times Pakistan Bureau Chief in Islamabad. Save the Children, Declan, has a major presence in Pakistan; 2,000 workers, only 6 foreign workers. So what is the significance of these 6 foreign workers being told to leave the country?

Declan Walsh: Well, Save the Children is actually the largest international aid organization working in Pakistan. It says that it helps up to 7 million Pakistanis every year and have played a very big role in the relief efforts during the floods that devastated Pakistan back in 2010. So the significance is, both in terms of Save the Children's operations in country to help Pakistanis who are in difficulty, but it's also about the wider signal it sends to the international humanitarian community which has been under intense scrutiny over the last 15 months, since the Bin Laden raid, from the Pakistani authorities who fear that international or western relief agencies are being used as cover by intelligence agencies, in this case particularly the CIA, in order to carry out their activities in Pakistan. So they've really been feeling the strain and the expulsion of these peoples in Pakistan will be another worrying sign for humanitarians trying to do their work here.

Mullins: The charge is often made against aid agencies that they're working on behalf of intelligence services here or that the aid workers themselves might even be spies. Remind us of the backdrop in this particular case.

Walsh: It all stems back really to Dr. Shakil Afridi. As you say, he is the doctor who helped the CIA to track down Osama Bin Laden to Abbottabad, that's the town where he was discovered and killed in May 2011. A couple weeks after Bin Laden was killed, Dr. Afridi was picked up by Pakistani Intelligence. He was interrogated extensively and Dr. Afridi, as we understand it and of course we are very much relying on second hand reports here and on police reports, he told the Pakistani authorities that his introduction to the CIA came through a senior official at Save the Children, in fact, he said that it came through the Country Director of Save the Children back in 2009. Now of course Save the Children deny this vehemently. They say that they have absolutely no link to intelligence activities and some senior western officials I've spoken to here are also skeptical about this claim. Some of them believe that Dr. Afridi may have been tortured under interrogation and that may have influence what he was prepared to say to the Pakistan authorities.

Mullins: And Dr. Afridi is serving now a 33 year jail sentence in Pakistan.

Walsh: That's right. Last May there was a very hasty and opaque legal process. He went under trial in the tribal areas, which is an entirely different legal system from the rest of the country and there is very little transparency. In very short order, he was sentenced to 33 years; interestingly enough, not for spying for the CIA but from some entirely unrelated charges. In any event, he is now in jail in Peshawar and his family want the conviction to be overturned and any other form of support he has comes from the United States where there are a large number of Congressmen who feel that Dr. Afridi was someone who helped the United States to catch someone who was also an enemy of Pakistan and that therefore he should not be punished in this manner.

Mullins: There is a local effect here and an international consequence too. The local effect of a group like Save the Children having its foreign staff having to leave the country and also other organizations, aid organizations that you say have been restricted in their movements in some way recently. What is the consequence on the ground of that?

Walsh: For Save the Children, it's really not clear at the moment. Save the Children has reduced its foreign presence over the last year or so. They now just have 6 international staff members here. These are the people who have been given a deadline to leave, as I understand it, by next Wednesday. But the organization also employs 2,000 Pakistanis across the country and it says that its operations will not be severely impacted. The wider problem really is the signal that this sends to the broader humanitarian community. Already in the last 15 months since the Bin Laden raid, aid agencies have been saying that they have great difficulty getting visas for their staff, their movements are restricted across the country, as some are complaining of harassment from intelligence people who turn up at their offices asking questions; and coupled with the declining security situation for aid agencies, it's a very difficult atmosphere for the international aid community here.

Mullins: Yeah, and there's also a larger picture here of the lingering tension between Pakistan and the United States, between the governments in the aftermath of the apprehension and death of Osama Bin Laden.

Walsh: Absolutely. It's very hard to avoid that impression when you're looking at these stories, particularly about this affair of Dr. Afridi, which in a sense has become sort of symbolic of the tensions between the two countries. Here we have this man who helped out the CIA and the Pakistani argument is treason under Pakistani law and deserves to be punished. On the other hand you have the United States saying that Dr. Afridi was helping to track down a common enemy of both Pakistan and the United States and despite much talk about his case over the last number of months; both sides still seem to be very far apart.

Mullins: Thank you. Speaking to us from Islamabad, the Pakistan Bureau Chief for the New York Times, Declan Walsh. Thanks again.

Walsh: Thank you very much.