Recent reports indicate that the Pakistani government is in talks with US officials over the transfer of Dr Aafia Siddiqui to Pakistan to serve the remainder of her 86-year jail sentence there. Will this materialize or is it another of those false hope balloons?
Recent reports from Islamabad have raised hopes that Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, graduate of MIT (1998) and PhD in neuroscience from Brandeis University in Texas (2001), may be extradited from the US to serve the remainder of her 86-year jail sentence in Pakistan. She was given this long sentence by a New York judge on September 25, 2010 after she was accused of attempting to kill US Navy Seals and FBI agents while being interrogated at a police building in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province in July 2008. At the time, Aafia, as she has come to be known, was in a wheelchair and weighed a total of 87 pounds after undergoing years of torture and rape at the US-maintained torture chamber at Bagram Airbase outside Kabul.
Umar Hameed, a Pakistan Foreign Office spokesman told a private TV channel in Islamabad on July 20 that the US had offered Pakistan a deal to sign a prisoner swap agreement after which both countries would release each other’s prisoners. This was reported by several Pakistani newspapers including the Pakistan Observer (July 20) and The Nation (July 22). If the deal goes through, Dr. Aafia Siddiqui must serve the remainder of her prison term in Pakistan, according to conditions put forward by the US.
According to documents, the US has told Pakistan in writing that the only legal way for the extradition of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui was to sign a prisoner swap agreement with the US. Washington offered two deals that include the European Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons and the Convention on Serving Criminal Sentences Abroad in this regard.
Aafia’s case gained international attention because of the manner in which she was kidnapped on March 30, 2003. She disappeared together with her three children for several years, re-appeared many years later to face bizarre allegations in a New York Court in 2008. Most Pakistanis believe she is the victim of America’s war on terror that is essentially a war of terror on Islam and Muslims. According to US officials, she was an al-Qaeda accomplice who “posed a present and clear danger to the US” (US Attorney General John Ashcroft); that she is “very dangerous” and had a “treasure trove” of documents when captured (FBI); that she planned to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, Wall Street and the Animal Disease Center on Plum Island, according to lurid details in the US media. Other media outlets called her an “al-Qaeda woman” and alleged she had detailed radiological, chemical and biological information (her PhD supervisor at Brandeis University said her thesis related to learning by imitation and had nothing to do with bombs, or bomb-making!).
When she was presented in court, none of the terror related allegations against her that had been so eagerly splashed in the media to tarnish her image were mentioned. Officials in the US — and the West in general — believe in trial in the media of Muslims, and the media act as willing accomplices. Now, the frail 87-pound, 5’ 4” Aafia with multiple gunshot wounds was accused of having attempted to grab an assault rifle from a US soldier in Afghanistan in July 2008. No US official has explained when and how she ended up there in the first place. The US alleged that she was going to shoot a group of FBI agents and soldiers including Navy Seals at an Afghan police compound. In court, the prosecution failed to produce any evidence about how a frail woman who had been emaciated after years of incarceration and brutality, could grab the gun from a brute soldier much less fire it.
Further, no shell casings were produced about the alleged shooting. An FBI forensic expert testified at the trial that there were no traces of the gun being fired at all and no fingerprints of Aafia were found on the gun she had allegedly grabbed from a muscular soldier. No injured US soldiers were presented in court either. Elaine Whitfield Sharp who represented Aafia, asked the jurors. “Picture this woman who is very tiny and frail, and ask yourself how she engaged in armed conflict with six (armed/well-trained) military men.” Sharp went on, “How did this happen? And how did she get shot? I think you can answer that, can’t you?” The jurors evidently could not; their minds had been poisoned by incessant propaganda that denounced her as being an “al-Qaeda Woman” out to get the US.
Aafia Siddiqui was sentenced to 86 years in prison after a trial that violated even the kangaroo trial standards that have become standard fare in the US. The badly tortured woman in extremely poor health vehemently denied all the charges and repeatedly stressed that she did not recognize the jurisdiction of the court because she had been kidnapped from outside her home in Karachi, Pakistan. The judge, Richard Berman (whose father was an Israeli citizen) dismissed her concerns and threw her out of the courtroom several times for disrupting court proceedings.
She was kidnapped on March 30, 2003 while traveling in a taxi to Karachi airport together with her three children for a flight to Islamabad. She and her children simply disappeared. It is believed that Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and FBI agents kidnapped her. Her family members — parents and sister — have said that shortly thereafter, Pakistani intelligence agents came to their house warning them against making any noise about her whereabouts. They were warned of dire consequences if they did. In a 2010 audio-video testimony, the Sindh police chief said he was involved in the arrest of Aafia Siddiqui and that it was done at the behest of government officials at the time when General Pervez Musharraf and his bounty hunters were in power. Musharraf has admitted in his book, In the Line of Fire that he and his senior officers have collected millions of dollars from the Americans for arresting and handing over “terror suspects.”
Where did Aafia end up? According to Moazzam Begg, the British citizen who was also kidnapped by the ISI and spent more than a year at Afghanistan’s notorious Bagram Airbase before being sent to the American gulag at Guantanamo Bay from where he was released in 2005, said that while he was at Bagram, he heard about this mysterious woman being held there. She was prisoner No. 650. He could hear her screams when she was being tortured and repeatedly raped by the Americans and their proxies.
Aafia’s plight came to light only in 2006 when Moazzam Begg and Yvonne Ridley raised her case. The latter traveled to Pakistan to meet political leaders and inform them about Aafia’s plight. Both Imran Khan and leaders of the Jamaat-e Islami took up her cause demanding that the Pakistani government take up the matter with Washington. American and British groups also joined the campaign forcing the US government to admit that it has Dr. Aafia Siddiqui in their custody but continued to lie about when she was arrested. Soon after the July 2008 alleged attack at the Afghan police building, Aafia was produced in a US court on July 30. Thus began another episode of her tortuous journey.
It is believed that the allegation was made by her former husband, Dr. Mohammed Amjad Khan, to punish her. The two fell out after bearing three children and the divorce occurred on October 21, 2002 after Khan had a fight with her father in Karachi.
Dr. Aafia Siddiqui is held at the Federal Medical Center (FMC) in Carswell, Texas, where she is kept in the Special Housing Unit (SHU), the most notorious of all confinement categories in the US. Lynne Stewart, the 67-year-old lawyer who is suffering from cancer, is also being held there. She may die there because her appeal for release on compassionate grounds has been rejected. In late May, Lynne Stewart was assaulted in her cell by guards leaving her bleeding.
The Carswell Centre is not a very pleasant place. Will Aafia Siddiqui have better luck than Lynne Stewart? No one should hold their breath. Until Aafia is returned, all this news may be just smokescreen to deflect rising public anger in Pakistan.