Dr. Aafia Siddiqui sentenced to 86 years jail
By Abdus Sattar Ghazali
On September 23, 2010, US District Court Judge Richard Berman sentenced Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, the Pakistani neuroscientist once dubbed by the US media as Al-Qaeda Lady, to 86 years in prison. Not unexpectedly, the verdict triggered outrage across Pakistan with protesters taking to the streets in many places. It was 10 p.m. in Pakistan when Judge Richard Berman announced the judgment but protesters were up in arms in several cities of the country.
There were demonstrations, in Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar burning US flags and effigies of US leaders. They chanted anti-American slogans. In Lahore, a young demonstrator was shown on a Pakistani TV network saying that “we will burn the US consulate.” Next day, on Sept. 24, flurry of protests and rallies were staged in all the major cities including Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar, Quetta and many other cities and towns.
In Karachi, a large number of people gathered at the residence of Dr. Afia’s sister Dr. Fowzia Siddiqui. She said "This decision proves that the system of justice that the US believes is its pride is no longer effective.”
Dr. Afia Siddiqui's case has attracted deep support from across the political spectrum in Pakistan. Her plight taps into deep anti-American hostility in a country where a recent survey found that just 17% of Pakistanis view Washington favorably.
Shahbaz Sharif, Chief Minister of the Punjab Province with largest population, described it a verdict against humanity. Mufti Munibur Rehman, a prominent religious leader said that the verdict will foment extremism in Pakistan. Maulana Fazalur Rehman, Chairman of parliament’s Kashmir Committee, announced that he will cancel his forthcoming visit to the US in protest against the US verdict.
Altaf Hussein, head of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, the third largest political party of Pakistan, said if the MQM been in power, it would have severed all ties with the US and its allies over the inhuman sentence of the daughter of the nation Dr Aafia Siddiqui by the US court. “If the MQM had been in power, then it would have immediately severed ties with the US and its allies even at the cost of the IMF loan because some countries do not compromise their integrity and national dignity, and they prefer starvation to rid their country from slavery.”
Tellingly, during the verdict proceedings Dr. Afia was quoted by Associated Press as telling the court: ''I am not sad. I am not distressed. ... They are not torturing me.” ''This is a myth and lie and it's being spread among the Muslims.'' Commenting on this statement, Dr. Fowzia Siddiqui said that she was perplexed with this statement that has been given under duress.
It may be recalled that in July 2009, Dr. Afia told the court that she was being tortured. The BBC reported on July 7, 2009: “While denying charges against her, she also told the court about her mistreatment in prison and desecration of the Holy Quran. She said that the Holy Quran was put in her feet. At one time she turned toward the court room packed with journalists and her well wishers and said they should tell the world that she is innocent, she is being tortured and there is a conspiracy against her.”
Dr. Fowzia Siddiqui also accused the Pakistani government of collaborating with the US government in Dr. Afia’s plight. "The conviction clearly shows how enslaved our government is. The previous government (President Pervez Musharraf's) had sold Aafia once, but the present government has sold her time and again," she said.
The Justice for Aafia Coalition (JFAC), an umbrella body for a number of organizations, groups, and activists created in February 2010 to campaign for the opening of a full investigation into the circumstances of her detention, expressed shock at the harsh sentence passed on Dr. Aafia Siddiqui. The JFAC's statement, released soon after Dr. Aafia Siddiqui was sentenced to 86 years imprisonment, said: "We are deeply saddened by the harsh sentence passed on Dr. Aafia Siddiqui by Judge Richard Berman today. "It has now been over seven and a half years since Dr. Siddiqui was abducted with her three young children by Pakistani and American agencies. She has since been separated from her children and family, detained in a series of secret prisons and physically and psychologically abused by her captors. Following a blatantly prejudiced and unfair trial in which little conclusive evidence of her guilt was presented, she was found guilty…. While we are disappointed by Judge Berman's decision, we condemn in the strongest terms the stance of the Pakistani government towards this beloved daughter of the nation. While we must never look to the wolf for protection, we expect the shepherd to care for his flock. The Pakistani government has from the outset been complicit in Aafia's disappearance and detention, and has displayed nothing but contempt for its people and dignity through its cowardly stance in requesting her repatriation….”
Dr Aafia says an appeal would be a waste of time
In New York, hundreds of supporters of Dr Siddiqui had gathered on the court grounds and adjoining areas protesting against her trial and conviction. “It is my judgment that Dr Siddiqui is sentenced to a period of incarceration of 86 years,” said Judge Richard Berman. Dr Aafia Siddiqui denounced the trial and said an appeal would be “a waste of time. I appeal to God.” When her lawyer Dawn Cardi said in the court that they would appeal the sentence, Dr Siddiqui shouted “they are not my lawyers”.
On February 3, 2010, a jury in New York found Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, guilty of attempted murder charges on all seven counts listed in the complaint against her. She was tried on charges of trying to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan on July 28, 2008. According to the prosecution, Dr. Siddiqui grabbed a US warrant officer's rifle while she was detained for questioning in July 2008 at a police station in Ghazni and fired at FBI agents and military personnel as she was pushed down to the ground. None of the US soldiers or FBI agents was injured, but US-educated Dr.Siddiqui was shot. She was charged with attempted murder and assault and other crimes.
Dr. Afia Siddiqui vehemently denied all the charges against her during the trial, calling them 'ridiculous' and insisting that she was framed, jailed, and tortured by US agents in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
To borrow Stephen Lendman, “her trial was a travesty of justice based on the preposterous charge that in the presence of two FBI agents, two Army interpreters, and three US Army officers, she (110 pounds and frail) assaulted three of them, seized one of their rifles, opened fire at close range, hit no one, yet she was severely wounded. No credible evidence was presented. Some was kept secret. The proceedings were carefully orchestrated. Witnesses were either enlisted, pressured, coerced, and/or bought off to cooperate, then jurors were intimidated to convict her.”
According to prosecution Siddiqui was arrested by the Afghan police in the town of Ghazni with notes indicating plans to attack the Statue of Liberty and other New York landmarks. However, she was not charged with terrorism but charged only with attempted murder.
During the trial, the prosecution admitted that there were no fingerprints on the gun she was supposed to have wrested from one of the soldiers. No bullets were recovered from the cell.
Early in the case Siddiqui's defense team suggested she was a victim of the "dark side," picked up by Pakistani or U.S. intelligence, but prosecutors insisted they found no evidence she'd ever been illegally detained. By the time of the trial, no mention was made of Siddiqui's whereabouts during her five missing years.
No explanation was given as to why a would-be terrorist would wander around openly with a slew of almost theatrically incriminating materials in her possession.
No questions were raised about the whereabouts of her two missing children, one of whom is a U.S. citizen. (Her daughter Maryam and son Ahmed later recovered from Afghanistan and handed over to Dr. Fowzia Siddiqui.)
By keeping the focus on Ghazni, the prosecution avoided the main issue in Dr. Aafia's case: Where was she from March 2003 to July 2008 when she suddenly appeared in US custody in Afghanistan.
Perhaps, there were four allegations, not one, that required deliberation:
1. The first allegation against Dr. Aafia: In 2003, US authorities alleged that she had links with Al-Qaeda. Throughout March 2003 flashes of the particulars of Dr. Aafia were telecast with her photo on American TV channels and radios painting her as a dangerous Al Qaeda person needed by the FBI for interrogation. At a news conference in May 2004, US Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller announced that the FBI was looking for seven people with suspected ties to Al Qaeda. MIT graduate and former Boston resident Aafia Siddiqui was the only woman on the list.
2. The second allegation: The US authorities claimed on July 17, 2008, that Dr. Aafia was found to be in possession of some objectionable and dangerous material. According to US officials, Afghani police, acting on an anonymous tip that a foreign woman was planning terrorist activities, arrested Aafia Siddiqui outside the governor's compound in Ghazni, and discovered in her purse bottles of liquids, bomb making instructions, and a map of New York City landmarks.
3. The third allegation: International human rights group, prior to July 17, 2008, alleged that Dr. Aafia was being held in a secret prison. She was unlawfully abducted and sexually tortured. This needed to be addressed before moving on. This allegation was against the US and Pakistani authorities.
Dr. Aafia Siddiqui left her mother's house in Gulshan-e-Iqbal, Karachi, Sindh province, along with her three children, in a Metro-cab on March 30, 2003 to catch a flight for Islamabad, but never reached the airport. The press reports claimed that Dr. Aafia had been picked-up by Pakistani intelligence agencies while on her way to the airport and initial reports suggested that she was handed over to the American Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). At the time of her arrest she was 30 years and the mother of Mirryam, 4 (daughter) and two sons Ahmad, 6 and Sulyman, six months.
A few days later an American news channel, NBC, reported that Aafia had been arrested in Pakistan on suspicion of facilitating money transfers for terror networks of Osama Bin Laden. A Monthly English magazine of Karachi in a special coverage on Dr. Aafia reported that one week after her disappearance, a plain clothed intelligence went to her mother's house and warned her, "We know that you are connected to higher-ups but do not make an issue out of your daughter's disappearance." According to the report the mother was threatened her with 'dire consequences' if she made a fuss.
Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, who studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US, for about 10 years and did her PhD in genetics, returned to Pakistan in 2002. Having failed to get a suitable job, she again visited the US on a valid visa in February 2003 to search for a job and to submit an application to the US immigration authorities. She moved there freely and came back to Karachi by the end of February 2003 after renting a post office box in her name in Maryland for the receipt of her mail. It has been claimed by the FBI (Newsweek International, June 23, 2003, issue) that the box was hired for one Mr Majid Khan, an alleged member of Al Qaeda residing in Baltimore.
Throughout March 2003 flashes of the particulars of Dr. Aafia were telecast with her photo on American TV channels and radios painting her as a dangerous Al Qaeda person needed by the FBI for interrogation. On learning of the FBI campaign against her she went underground in Karachi and remained so till her kidnapping. The June 23, 2003, issue of Newsweek International was exclusively devoted to Al Qaeda. The core of the issue was an article "Al Qaeda's Network in America". The article has three photographs of so-called Al Qaeda members - Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, Dr. Afia Siddiqui and Ali S. Al Marri of Qatar who has studied in the US like Dr. Siddiqui and had long since returned to his homeland. In this article, which has been authored by eight journalists who had access to FBI records, the only charge leveled against Dr. Aafia is that "she rented a post-office box to help a former resident of Baltimore named Majid Khan (alleged Al Qaeda suspect) to help establish his US identity. Dr. Aafia faded into limbo for more than a year, until summer 2004 when the Attorney General and the Director of the FBI announced that she was one of seven terrorists who were planning to disrupt the American presidential elections.
Dr. Aafia's plight was highlighted by a British journalist and peace activist, Yvonne Ridley, who flew to Pakistan to address a press conference in Islamabad on July 7, 2008. "Today I am crying out for help, not for myself but for a Pakistani woman neither you nor I have ever met. She has been held in isolation by the Americans in Afghanistan and she needs help," Ridley told a crowded press conference.
Ridley first learnt about the woman while reading a book by Guantanamo ex-detainee Moazzam Begg. One of the four Arabs who escaped from the infamous Bagram cell in July 2005 also told a television channel that he had heard a woman's cries and screams in the prison but never saw her.
Ridley called her the Grey Lady of Bagram because she was almost a ghost, a spectre whose cries and screams continue to haunt those who heard her. The woman is registered as Prisoner number 650 and the US officials can't deny the fact, Ridley said. "I demand that the US military free the Grey Lady immediately. We don't know her identity, we don't know her state of mind and we don't know the extent of the abuse or torture she has been subjected to."
On 24th July, 2008 the Asian Human Rights Commission issued an Urgent Appeal in the case of the disappearance of a lady doctor. Amid public protests in Pakistan, on August 1, an FBI official visited the house of Dr. Aafia's brother in Houston to deliver the news that she is alive and in custody.
One week later she was produced in a New York court where even the Judge expressed surprise at the quick extradition of Dr. Aafia from Afghanistan to New York noting that in such a short period one could not extradite a person from Bronx (a New York Borough) to Manhattan.
Interestingly, the Sept 23rd judgment noted that, “There are defense allegations going back to the assertions made first by Dr. Siddiqui’s counsel Ms. Fink that Dr. Siddiqui was intercepted while in a taxi in Pakistan on her way to the airport with her children and taken into custody and thereafter tortured. And that is alleged to have occurred sometime in or around 2003 or thereafter. There are defense allegations also that she was detained by Pakistanis and later by Americans. And it apparently has recently been reported, that is to say in August of this year, that Dr. Siddiqui’s son said that he and his mother were detained and mistreated by American soldiers and people speaking Urdu and Pashto. I am aware of no evidence in the record to these allegations or to establish them as fact.”
However, Judge Berman absolved the US administration from any responsibility by stating: “Indeed, there is no credible evidence in the record that the United States officials and/or agencies detained Dr. Siddiqui prior to her arrest in July of 2008 after the incident alleged — the shooting incident alleged in this case.”
4. The fourth allegation: The US authorities alleged that she fired at some US soldiers, etc. while she was being interrogated, after her alleged arrest. This is the only allegation on which Aafia has been tried. In the pre-trial hearing on January 18 the prosecution admitted: Dr Aafia is not a member of al-Qaida. She has no links to any terrorist organization.
The question is why the FBI chose to charge her only with firing at the US soldiers and agents? Why she is not charged with links to Al Qaed? Why she is not charged with planning attacks on targets in New York? Remember, a map of New York land marks was found on her when she was taken into custody in Ghazni, according to prosecution. We may find answers to these questions in the post-9/11 trials of Muslims in the US. A number of Muslims were arrested on terror suspicion but never charged with terrorism or acquitted in terrorism charges. They were put on trial with flimsy charges of immigration violation, tax evasion or some other charges which have nothing to do with terrorism. Just two examples may suffice to prove my point:
Anwar Mahmood, a Pakistani immigrant, was picked up in October 2001 for taking photographs of an upstate New York reservoir. No terror-related charges were ever filed against him but investigators found him in minor violation of immigration law. After spending three years in jail, he was deported to Pakistan in August 2004 for violating immigration law.
In February 2007, a jury acquitted Dr. Abdelhaleem Ashqar, a Palestinian-American former professor at Washington's HowardUniversity, of terror-related charges. Tellingly, in November 2007 he was sentenced to more than 11 years in prison for refusing to testify in 2003 before a grand jury investigating the Palestinian militant group Hamas. Dr. Ashqar was convicted of criminal contempt and obstruction of justice.
Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of America.