The White House is saying little publicly about any efforts to press Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on the status of an imprisoned doctor who helped the CIA track down al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.
President Obama met Sharif at the White House on Tuesday as Washington and Islamabad are experiencing a thaw in their relationship after a host of bitter disputes between the nations.
Obama and several key lawmakers are pressing Sharif to secure the release of doctor Shakil Afridi, who was arrested by Pakistan in May 2011, shortly after the U.S. Navy SEAL raid which killed bin Laden at his home in Abbottabad. Afridi was tried for treason and convicted of having ties to Lashkar-e-Islam, a militant group that has clashed with Pakistani troops in recent years. He is serving a 33-year sentence.
Afridi’s supporters, though, say those are trumped up charges intended to punish him for helping U.S. authorities find bin Laden.
Moments before Obama and Sharif met in the Oval Office, White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters that Obama intended to make clear his interest in seeing Afridi let go and exonerated.
“Our position on Dr. Afridi has long been clear, and I'm sure we will again make it clear during this visit,” Carney said. “We believe his treatment is both unjust and unwarranted. He should be released.
"Bringing Osama bin Laden to justice was clearly in Pakistan's interest, and the prosecution and conviction of Dr. Afridi sends exactly the wrong message about the importance of this shared interest. So this is something that we have, in a sustained way, made clear to Pakistan and will continue to do so, including during this visit," Carney said.
After the meeting, a White House spokesperson confirmed that Obama pressed for Afridi's release and referred questions about Sharif's response to the Pakistani government, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Earlier in the week, Foreign Secretary Jalil Abbas Jilani, who was accompanying Sharif on the visit to Washington, told reporters that Afridi was engaged in criminal activity, was "not a hero" and the courts would determine his fate.
The White House must walk a delicate line as it seeks to strengthen ties with Pakistan, while also pressing Afridi’s case.
Afridi has sought a fresh probe into his conviction in the treason case and a Pakistani tribunal will hear arguments from his legal counsel on Oct. 30.
On Tuesday a bipartisan group of lawmakers also met with Sharif and urged him to release Afridi.
Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., Ranking Member Rep. Elliot Engel, D-Calif., and 15 other members of the committee met with Sharif on Capitol Hill.
"I specifically pressed the prime minister to release Dr. Shakil Afridi and encouraged him to ensure that his nation is in fact a responsible and effective partner in countering terrorism, proliferation and violent extremism in the region," Royce said.
Sharif's four-day visit to Washington comes after the U.S. quietly released $1.6 billion in military and economic aid to Pakistan after a thaw in relations. Those funds were suspended after tensions rose between the two countries after the covert raid that killed bin Laden and deadly U.S. air strikes, which accidentally killed Pakistani soldiers.
Congressional aides said ties have improved enough to allow the money to flow again, and Pakistan has reopened U.S. and NATO supply routes to Afghanistan.
Washington and Islamabad also recently restarted their “strategic dialogue” — talks to support U.S. economic aid to Pakistan, along with strengthened trade ties between the two countries.
Over the summer, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development told Congress they wanted to restart the flow of assistance, which is mainly devoted to helping Pakistan fight terrorism. Building up counter-terrorism partnerships in Pakistan is essential as the U.S. withdraws its troops from Afghanistan next year and tries to protect the stability of the government in Kabul.
Other assistance is dedicated to a range of areas, including help for Pakistani law enforcement, agricultural and energy enterprises, and a multibillion-dollar dam in a disputed territory.
The U.S.-Pakistani relationship has survived a turbulent period.
The Pakistani government was outraged that the U.S. did not notify it before the Navy SEAL raid on bin Laden's compound. There also was a months-long legal battle over a CIA contractor who killed two Pakistanis, and Islamabad publicly rebuked the U.S. after an air strike mistakenly killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers in November 2011.
Islamabad shut down all supply routes for troops from Pakistan to Afghanistan until it received a U.S. apology seven months later.