By Jibran Ahmad
PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - The Pakistani doctor who helped the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) hunt down Osama bin Laden started a hunger strike in his jail cell this week to protest against his living conditions, prison officials said on Thursday.
Shakil Afridi was sentenced in May to 33 years in jail for his links to a banned militant group. The decision was widely seen as punishment for helping the CIA find the al Qaeda leader, and has led to strained ties between Washington and Islamabad.
Prison officials in the northwestern city of Peshawar said they are keeping Afridi in solitary confinement and will not allow him to have visitors nor speak to anyone by telephone as punishment for a media interview he gave in September.
"After the interview in which Dr. Shakil Afridi levelled serious allegations against the country's top spy agency, the prison authorities barred his family members and lawyers from meeting him," said a prison official, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
"In protest, Dr. Shakil has begun a hunger strike for an indefinite period."
An investigation following the September interview found that Afridi had bribed guards to use their cell phones to speak to journalists, family and friends, making a total of 58 calls, prison officials said. Six prison guards have been suspended.
U.S. officials have hailed Afridi, aged in his 40s, as a hero for helping pinpoint bin Laden's location before the May 2011 raid that killed the al Qaeda leader.
Afridi's family and lawyers maintain he was not guilty of any wrongdoing.
"He is not allowed to meet with us, his brother and other family members. He is a human being and would definitely be frustrated enough to begin a hunger strike," said Afridi's lawyer, Samiullah Afridi.
Afridi had been working with the CIA for years before the bin Laden raid, providing intelligence on militant groups in Pakistan's unruly tribal region.
The bin Laden raid was a humiliation for Pakistan's powerful military and raised questions about whether it was harboring militants.
U.S. President Barack Obama said the al Qaeda leader would have escaped if the United States had sought Pakistan's permission ahead of the raid.
(Writing by Randy Fabi; Editing by Paul Tait)