The aid charity caught up in the CIA operation to capture Osama bin Laden was ordered out of Pakistan on Thursday after officials accused it of “anti-Pakistan” activities. The Islamabad headquarters of Save the Children were padlocked by police while a government notification told the group to wind up its operations and ensure that expatriate staff left within 15 days. The expulsion of one of the world’s best known non-governmental organisations (NGOs) follows years of growing distrust towards foreign charities that security services suspect are often used as covers for intelligence work.
“There were some intelligence reports suggesting some of the international NGOs funded by US, Israel and India were involved in working on an anti-Pakistan agenda,” interior minister Chaudhry Nisar told a press conference on Friday, at which he also launched a tirade against overseas rights activists campaigning against the growing use of the death penalty by the country.
“Let me clarify: offices of any international NGO found doing anti-Pakistan activities would be shut down,” he said. Save the Children first attracted official wrath after becoming embroiled – the organisation has always claimed unwittingly – in the CIA’s efforts in 2011 to pinpoint the location of former al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden to a compound in the town of Abbottabad.
In 2012 Islamabad gave foreign staff working for Save the Children just a week to leave the country after the country’s top spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI), linked it to a bogus hepatitis B vaccination programme conducted in the town by a doctor called Shakil Afridi. Under the cover of injecting householders with hepatitis B vaccine, Afridi had tried to collect DNA samples from Bin Laden family members living in the walled compound during the months before US special forces raided the building.
To the fury of US politicians, Afridi was arrested shortly after the killing of Bin Laden and sentenced to 33 years in jail by a tribal court for charges unrelated to the CIA or Bin Laden. A leaked version of the official inquiry into the Bin Laden affair revealed Afridi told investigators a senior Save the Children official introduced him to female CIA officers, with whom he held secretive meetings in warehouses. Afridi said they instructed him to organise a vaccination programme in Abbottabad with a particular focus on the part of town where Bin Laden’s compound was located.
Afridi insisted he had no idea he was being used by a foreign intelligence agency. Save the Children said the doctor had never been employed by them. In a statement on Friday, the charity said it strongly objected to the sealing of its office in Islamabad and said it would raise its concerns at the highest levels. “All our work is designed and delivered in close collaboration with the government ministries across the country and aims to strengthen public service delivery systems in health, nutrition, education and child welfare,” the statement said.
Save the Children has been in Pakistan since 1979 and currently has 1,200 Pakistani staff members working on its projects. Foreign charity bosses complain they have been treated with increasing hostility and suspicion in Pakistan, with obstacles to their work becoming ever more onerous in the past six months. Acquiring visas for foreign staff had become a major battle for the sector, as had getting official permission to travel outside major cities.
Charities are obliged to sign memorandums of understanding detailing precisely where in Pakistan they propose to work and how much money they would be bringing into the country. An interior ministry official said on Friday it had cancelled agreements with at least 15 foreign charities, including the Norwegian Refugee Council, on the advice of intelligence agencies that said the organisations had been “collecting sensitive data” from Pakistan’s tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.
The NRC, which suspended all of its operations in the country late last year, said it could not comment on the matter. The agreements can be immediately cancelled if the charities are found to be involved in activities “considered detrimental to national interest, sovereignty and integrity of Pakistan”. NGO bosses say the agreements can only be signed off after providing the government with huge amounts of paperwork and information.
Other foreign organisations say they have been forced to shut down after being victimised by the security agencies. “We weren’t officially closed down but our staff were told they would be arrested in a week if we didn’t stop working,” said the director of one small organisation forced to first shutter its operations in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province before later closing nationwide.
“I don’t think they want to close down the entire NGO sector but they do want more leverage and greater oversight,” the director said. In recent weeks, the government has been stung by criticism from rights activists over the spate of executions that followed its decision in December to end a moratorium on the death penalty. Nisar said foreign charities should stop their “propaganda against the Pakistani judicial system”.
He was particularly irked by the case of Shafqat Hussain, a man awaiting execution for a murder activists claim took place when he was under the age of 18, who was given a last-minute reprieve on Tuesday. “Some international NGOs with the help of local NGOs uploaded childhood pictures of Shafqat Hussain and propagated that he was underage at time he committed the murder of a seven-year-old child,” he said.
“Law enforcement agencies have investigated and found Shafqat was 23 years old and was not underage at time of crime,” he said, according to The Guardian. .