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Jail sentence overturned for man who may have helped in bin Laden hunt

(CBS News) ISLAMABAD - Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani doctor who may have helped CIA agents track down Osama bin Laden in 2011, won a faint ray of hope Thursday when a Pakistani judicial official overturned a 33-year-jail sentence passed on Afridi and ordered a retrial. However, western and Pakistani officials closely tracking the case warned that it was still too early to conclude if Afridi was on his way to gaining freedom.

A senior government official speaking to CBS News from the northern city of Peshawar confirmed the news and said Sahibzada Mohammad Anees, a government official in that city with judicial powers, had ordered the retrial on the grounds that the earlier sentence had been passed by a government official who did not have the authority to give the verdict.

"The retrial has been ordered because of a technicality" said the government official, who spoke to CBS News on condition that he will not be named because he was not allowed to speak to journalists.

"It is still early to tell if Afridi is any closer to winning his freedom than before," added the official.

U.S. officials have hailed Afridi as a heroic figure who helped pinpoint the location of Osama bin Laden, who was tracked and killed by U.S. Navy SEALs in May 2011. That ended Washington's hunt for bin Laden since the New York terrorist attacks of 2001 triggered the U.S. led global war on terror. Bin Laden emerged as the world's most sought-after terrorist in view of his role as leader of al Qaeda, the militant outfit responsible for the 2001 attacks.

Afridi's earlier verdict was handed down by an assistant political agent in Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal areas along the Afghan border. A political agent and an assistant political agent represent the Pakistani government in the tribal areas -- a semi autonomous region where local tribesmen live under their own customs while the country's judicial system is not applied in its entirety.

"The assistant political agent ... did not have the authority to award 33 years imprisonment to Dr. Shakil Afridi," said an excerpt from the written judgment circulated by Reuters news service. "The assistant political agent played the role of a magistrate for which he was not authorized" it added.

Pakistani officials have accused Afridi of organizing a fake vaccination campaign whose representatives allegedly entered bin Laden's palatial residence in a suburb of Pakistan's northern city of Peshawar and collected blood samples of children to be matched with the CIA's knowledge of bin Laden's sample.

"This entire episode was meant to fully confirm the presence of bin Laden in that location. We still don't know if Shakil Afridi was the man who definitively confirmed bin Laden's presence in the Abbottabad house," said one senior western diplomat in Islamabad who spoke to CBS News on condition of anonymity.

"For the U.S., this man is so important mainly because he did the right thing, not because without his (Afridi's) help, bin Laden could not be killed," he added.

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