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The Trial of Aafia Siddiqui

Aafia Siddiqui, the MIT-educated Pakistani woman on trial in federal court in Manhattan for attempted murder, is now awaiting a verdict in her case. After ten days of testimony in the trial, jury deliberations began on Monday afternoon. As of Wednesday morning, the jury had not yet reached a verdict.

The events for which Siddiqui is on trial are dramatic, but even more dramatic is the backdrop to the case. Siddiqui, who is believed to have married alleged 9/11 plotter Ammar al-Baluchi in early 2003, disappeared in Karachi, Pakistan, in March of that year. Her family claims that she took a taxi to Karachi airport, together with her three children — Ahmed, age 6, Mariam, age 4, and Suleman, age 6 months – and then vanished.

Al-Baluchi disappeared in April 2003 himself. A wanted terrorism suspect, he was whisked into the custody of the Pakistani intelligence services, who were working closely with the CIA in the “war on terror.” He didn’t reappear until September 2006, when he and thirteen other so-called “high-value detainees” were moved from secret CIA detention to Guantanamo.

Human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch thought that Siddiqui, too, was likely being held in secret by the CIA. But while many other “ghost detainees” reappeared in 2006 — either at Guantanamo, Bagram, or in the custody of other governments — she did not.

Her whereabouts remained a mystery until July 2008, when she and her oldest son surfaced in the custody of the Afghan police, having been arrested in Ghazni, Afghanistan. The day after her arrest, while she was detained at a police station, she allegedly picked up an unattended rifle and fired at a group of FBI agents, US soldiers, Afghan police and translators. No one was hurt except Siddiqui herself; she was shot by one of the soldiers.

The details of those two days in July have been parsed through at trial over the past two weeks. The jury has heard from eyewitnesses to the incident, ballistics experts, and crime scene investigators. But crucial parts of Siddiqui’s story are missing.

A trial’s narrative is always tightly circumscribed by the rules of evidence and the demands of relevance. In this instance, however, the constraints of the trial narrative have seemed especially limiting. Not only has the question of whether Siddiqui spent months or years in a secret prison not been thoroughly explored, the fate of her two missing children has not been clarified.

“If You Were in Secret Prisons”

To the extent that claims about a secret prison surfaced at trial, it was largely because Siddiqui herself – sometimes in courtroom outbursts – raised them. Siddiqui’s defense lawyers did little to draw out information about Siddiqui’s possible CIA detention, and the government clearly wanted the topic to go away.

If Siddiqui’s lawyers had wanted to explore the question, they faced two major obstacles. First, the government was uncooperative; it refused to provide any information about the Bush administration’s system of secret CIA detention, claiming that such information was classified. Second, Siddiqui did not cooperate with her legal team, leaving them without a possible firsthand source of information.

The issue nonetheless arose on the very first day of trial. Captain Robert Snyder, a US Army officer who was stationed in Ghazni at the time of Siddiqui’s arrest, was describing the documents that Siddiqui was said to be carrying when she was arrested.

For much of the morning, Siddiqui had rested her head on the defense table, suggesting that she was not paying close attention to the testimony. But as Snyder began listing the writing on some of the documents –words like “dirty bomb,” “lethal radiation,” “deadly fallout,” “Empire State Building,” “Brooklyn Bridge” – Siddiqui suddenly interrupted him, upset.

“If you were in secret prisons,” she said, her voice growing louder, “[and] your children were tortured … ” As the judge motioned for her to be removed from the courtroom, she continued: “This is not plans for New York City; I was never planning to bomb it! You’re lying!”

The subject came up again the next week when Siddiqui herself was on the witness stand, tense and uncomfortable under grilling by the prosecutor.

During direct examination by one of her defense attorneys, the topic of secret prisons did not arise, but when the prosecutor started to discuss the documents that had allegedly been in Siddiqui’s possession, Siddiqui interrupted her.

“If they’re in a secret prison, they see their children tortured in front of them … ”

“That’s not responsive,” the judge ruled, after the prosecutor complained. “Strike the testimony.”

“You Told Special Agent Sercer That You Had Been in Hiding for Several Years”

Later in Siddiqui’s cross-examination, the prosecutor came up with a very different version of how Siddiqui spent her missing years. Describing Siddiqui’s conversations with an FBI agent who spent time with her at Bagram Air Base while she was receiving medical care there, the prosecutor challenged Siddiqui’s story of secret detention.

“At Bagram,” the prosecutor insisted, “you told Special Agent Sercer that you had been in hiding for several years.”

The prosecutor got a chance to develop the story further when Special Agent Sercer, an FBI intelligence analyst, took the stand. Asked whether Siddiqui had discussed her whereabouts during the years before her 2008 arrest, Sercer said that Siddiqui had said she’d been in hiding.

“She would move from place to place,” Sercer said Siddiqui had told her. “She married someone so that her name would be changed. She stayed indoors a lot.”

Sercer’s version of the story coincides with what Siddiqui’s first husband, from whom she divorced in 2002, has told journalists. He claims that Siddiqui was seen at her house in the years between 2003 and 2008, and that he himself saw her in Karachi.

A Diversion or a Crime

In his closing argument, the prosecutor dismissed Siddiqui’s references to torture and secret prisons, calling them “a classic diversion.” The case “isn’t about that,” he insisted: It’s about what happened in a police station in Ghazni, Afghanistan.

But there’s no doubt that as the members of the jury deliberate, they’ll be wondering about what happened to Siddiqui well before she arrived in Ghazni. If the present trial is not the right place for solving that conundrum, a better option should be found.

JOANNE MARINER is a human rights lawyer living in New York and Paris.

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JOANNE MARINER is a human rights lawyer living in New York and Paris.

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