Early Friday morning Pakistani authorities deported 14 members of Osama bin Laden’s family to Saudi Arabia, bringing an awkward period that started with the discovery and killing of the world's most wanted man, to a close.
“The whole affair has been long and confusing. So naturally, we're all glad to see that it's over. And the family is happy to be home,” says Muhammad Aamir Khalil, the bin Laden family lawyer.
The deportation ends months of speculation about the fate of Osama bin Laden’s three widows and 11 children and grandchildren, who were detained by Pakistani security forces after the raid on the bin Laden’s compound in the military garrison town of Abbottabad almost one year ago, on May 2.
It was still dark when a van pulled out of the pink-tiled white house that had served as a make-shift prison for nearly two months. With its curtains drawn, the van inched its way through a throng of journalists attempting to catch a glimpse of the bin Ladens. When the van finally broke free of the crowd, it headed for a chartered plane parked at the Islamabad Airport, to fly them to Saudi Arabia.
Despite his relief at seeing the case close, Mr. Khalil remains critical of the process.
“Whether the authorities like to admit it or not, the truth is that the bin Laden family had been illegally detained at least twice since US Navy Seals first killed Osama. First, for the eight-month period leading up to their official arrest in March. And now, for the past week. The authorities were supposed to deport them as soon as their prison sentence ended,” Khalil says.
Three wives and two adult daughters were officially arrested on March 3 and charged with illegal entry and stay on April 13. Though none of the children were charged – they were under the legal age limit – the five women were sentenced to 45 days imprisonment. They served that sentence in a five-bedroom Islamabad villa. That sentence ended on Wednesday last week, at which point they were set to leave the country.
According to the country's Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, the deportation had been delayed because neither Saudi Arabia nor Yemen had yet to hear whether and how Saudi Arabia would receive the families.
Khalil, who also works with the Embassy of Yemen, dismissed those explanations.
“The Yemeni ambassador laughed when he heard the excuse,” Khalil says.
Saudi Arabia's willingness to accept the bin Laden family remained an open question until early this morning. Osama bin Laden had been stripped of his citizenship in 1994, and it was unclear whether the country would welcome the bin Ladens home. An anonymous source involved with the bin Laden family case informed the Monitor that Osama bin Laden's brother had played a key role in smoothing out relations with the Saudi Arabian government. He had negotiated with Saudi Arabia on behalf of the family.
“The bottom line is that they have finally gone home. The two eldest wives, Silham and Kharia, will remain in Saudi Arabia with their children. The youngest wife, Amal, will return to her home country Yemen after a few days, accompanied by the brother, Zakariya, who fought her case, and her children,” Khalil says.
International attention and significance
While the deportation of the bin Laden family has garnered international media attention, local experts debate its significance.
Mohammad Malick, the Editor of Pakistan's The News, says that the event has been sidelined in light of a controversial judgment by the country's Supreme Court to convict Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani for contempt.
"Gilani has been dominating headlines, and for good reason. The bin Laden family's deportation could have received more attention at some other point, but not in light of this conviction. That, however, does not mean that the event isn't significant,” says Mr. Malick.
Malick points out that Marc Grossman, US Special Envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, arrived in Islamabad yesterday to start high-level negotiations with the government. According to Malick, Grossman's arrival would have been far more significant were it not for Gilani's conviction.
“I think the departure of the bin Laden family closes a very important chapter for Pakistan – and saves the government a lot of hassles,” says Malick.
Talat Masood, a retired general and defense analyst, has a different take.
"The chapter never closes as far as Osama bin Laden is concerned. The legacy he has left behind for Pakistan is far too damaging, and not something we can just ignore,” says Masood.
In an in-camera joint sitting of parliament on May 14, only 12 days after bin Laden was killed, a unanimous resolution established an independent inquiry commission. The commission was tasked with investigating the May 2 raid, due by February 2012, but has still not submitted a report.
The question about how bin Laden could have hid in Pakistan with his family undetected since 2005 remains unanswered. Even Khalil, the family lawyer, points out that there is reason to be suspicious of official explanations. Referring to the only leaked police report available – a statement given by bin Ladens youngest wife, Amal – Khalil criticizes the authorities for keeping the other statements hidden.
“Why did [the government] only release one report? The story that has been circulating – that the other wives refused to give a statement – is untrue. I think they haven't released the reports, because the statements might give information that the authorities don't want out in the open,” says Khalil.
"This event is neither here nor there. It's just a lot of hoopla,” says Kamran Shafi, a former army officer and defense analyst.
Despite the curiosity surrounding the bin Laden incident, Mr. Shafi argues that the question of his family is unimportant. According to Shafi, the far more important and interesting question is the complicity of the Pakistani state.
”The authorities have just hyped up this whole issue to prove that their noses are clean. But they're not. Pakistan still has a deep state, a terrorist state. And that makes them complicit,” says Shafi.