ISLAMABAD – The plan to deport Osama bin Laden’s three widows and their nine children from Pakistan ran into more bureaucratic hurdles on Wednesday, making it uncertain when they would leave, their lawyer said.
The family was detained by Pakistani authorities last May after U.S. Navy SEALs raided the compound in northwest Pakistan where the al-Qaida chief was hiding and killed him. The American commandos left bin Laden’s relatives but took his body, which they later buried at sea.
Pakistan interrogated the family members and eventually charged the widows and two adult daughters last month with illegally entering and living in the country. The five women were convicted at the beginning of April and sentenced to 45 days in prison, with credit for about a month served.
Their prison term, which was spent at a well-guarded house in Islamabad, ended Tuesday. They were scheduled to be deported after the completion of their sentence, but their departure has been held up for bureaucratic reasons, said Atif Ali Khan, who took over as their lawyer Wednesday.
A brother of one of the widows, who has been campaigning for their release, fired the previous lawyer, Mohammad Amir Khalil, for making unauthorized statements to the media, said Khan.
Khalil could not be reached for comment. He initially said the family would be deported around midnight Tuesday and later revised that to sometime Wednesday.
But Khan said Pakistan’s Interior Ministry has not yet issued the necessary authorization for the family to leave, and it’s unclear exactly when that would happen.
Two of the widows are from Saudi Arabia, and one is from Yemen.
Khalil had said the entire family would be sent to Saudi Arabia. But Khan said the Yemeni woman, Amal Ahmed Abdel-Fatah al-Sada, may be sent to her home country with her children.
“The Saudi and Yemeni Embassies are in touch with Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry on this issue, and a final decision about the destination of the widows and children will be taken once we get” authorization for them to leave, said Khan.
There have been questions about Saudi Arabia’s willingness to take the family.
Saudi Arabia stripped bin Laden of his citizenship in 1994 because of his verbal attacks against the Saudi royal family. Saudi officials have declined to comment on the prospect of bin Laden’s family returning.
Pakistani officials have said very little publicly about the family, raising questions about why they were kept in detention for so long.
Some speculated Pakistan was worried information from the widows would point to some level of official assistance in hiding bin Laden. The compound in the town of Abbottabad where he lived for six years and was killed by U.S. commandos was about a kilometre (half a mile) from one of Pakistan’s main military academies.
The Pakistani government has denied knowing the terrorist leader’s whereabouts, and the U.S. has said it has no evidence senior Pakistani officials knew he was in Abbottabad.
But details leaked to the media from the interrogation of al-Sada, bin Laden’s Yemeni wife, raised further questions about how he was able to live in the country unnoticed for so long.
Al-Sada said the al-Qaida chief lived in five houses while on the run in Pakistan for nine years and fathered four children, two of whom were born in Pakistani government hospitals.
The family’s departure could help Pakistan close a painful chapter in the country’s history. Pakistani officials were outraged that the U.S. did not tell them about the operation against bin Laden until after it happened â€” a decision American officials explained by saying they were worried the information would be leaked.
In addition to facing difficult questions about how bin Laden was able to hide in the country for so long, Pakistan’s army suffered unusual domestic criticism because it was unable to stop the American raid from taking place.