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The Aafia Siddiqui Story

A woman finds herself alone on the street in an unfamiliar neighborhood of an unfamiliar city. The people around her don’t speak her native language, and in fact, she doesn’t understand their language.  She is accompanied by a 12 year old boy, Ali. She doesn’t recognize him, but she has a great affection for children, and he is in her care. He will later be identified as her son, Ahmed whom she has not seen in the 5 years since they were abducted from a taxi in Karachi not far from their home.  She doesn’t know  how she got there, and she isn’t entirely sure why she is there. Small and slender, no more than 110 lbs, he seems fragile, a little disoriented, out of place. She will later say that she was looking for her husband, or another time, that she was looking for a particular woman. It’s possible she really doesn’t know why she is there.  She hears the Muezzin’s call and begins to move towards the mosque. Perhaps she will find a refuge there.

The Afghan police in Ghazni notice a woman on the street. Something draws their attention to her.  She doesn’t appear to belong to the place. Perhaps she isn’t dressed in the local style. She is on the street in the early afternoon on a Friday when most men are at the Mosque and women are in their homes. The Police say she seemed out of place, lost. The police would later say that she was loitering after dark, but among the court documents, there is an interview with the shopkeeper in front of whose store she was detained. He says that he wasn’t in the store because it was Friday, he was attending the prayer service at the Mosque.  It would have been between 1 pm and 3:30 pm. He swears the woman is a stranger and he has never seen her before. Though they will later say that they only approached her because she seemed out of place, they check his shop and even his phone to make sure. There is nothing on his phone except some pornographic images of white girls. He is innocent.[3]

So what did attract their attention? Most likely we will never know for sure. Maybe its her apparent disorientation as they will later state, or perhaps it is just that they don’t recognize her. Maybe they have been tipped off to look for her. When they confront her, she is startled and defensive. She screams at them not to touch her. She accuses them of being Americans or American operatives.[3] It is clear that neither she nor the boy speaks the local language, so a translator is called. A WikiLeaked document identifies a shopkeeper who was enlisted as translator.  He says that she shouts at the police and curses them in Urdu.  She calls on Allah and demands that they not touch her.  Of course the same document says that she was picked up after dark.[1]  If they are just asking what she is doing, why is she so distressed?  Have they physically detained her, or is she just panicked by their uniforms? They take her in for questioning.

They have found a number of incriminating objects in her handbag. According to a document later published through Wikileaks, her purse contains “numerous documents on how to build explosives, chemical weapon use, targeting US military assets, excerpts from the Anarchist’s Arsenal and a 1 GB (gigabyte) thumb drive with additional related material”  along with “unknown chemical materials sealed in containers”.[1] During the course of the interrogation she is severely beaten. She admits that she is a suicide bomber whose target is the local governor. Apparently his home is nearby the place she was detained. She has a passport, which apparently has her true identity because they recognize her name as being on the FBI Most Wanted List. (Pretty good reckoning for local Afghan National Police who don’t speak English). Perhaps it just confirms that she is definitely the one they were looking for. They call Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Americans at Bagram, as well as the Governor she was supposedly targeting, who immediately takes advantage of the opportunity for publicity and calls a press conference.[2]

Soon the Americans arrived, FBI agents with soldiers and translators in tow, to collect their prey. She is sitting on a bed behind a curtain in a rather small room. She is bruised and exhausted. Perhaps she has dozed and is awakened by the entrance of as many as 10 men into the small room where she is being held. Now she is alert. It is interesting that the interrogators have brought along translators, but perhaps they need them to communicate with the Afghan police. The woman speaks good enough English to get a Masters Degree from MIT and PhD from Brandeis University. She was a dynamo then, busy with her studies and her charities and her family. Now she is exhausted, beaten, frightened, alone in a room full of heavily armed men.

One of the soldiers seats himself near the curtain and sets his automatic rifle on the floor near his chair. He will later say that it hadn’t occurred to him that the prisoner was in the room.[1]  I suppose that is understandable. In the world these Americans normally inhabit, prisoners are regularly shackled and hooded. They are brought into a room when everyone else is in place like chained animals being brought into the ring at a circus. Even so, it is a pretty serious breach of responsibility for the Sergeant in charge of the security team to lay his rifle on the floor next to a closed curtain.

This prisoner is curious about the commotion and anxious. She wants to know what is happening. She rises and steps forward. She peeks through the curtain …Snatches the gun … and Fires the gunaccording to the Americans. Someone yells out “The prisoner is free.”  Shots ring out. She  falls to the ground, wounded, with a bullet in her belly and one in her side.  When her attackers come to rescue her, she curses them in English and screams at them not to touch her, even as they wrestle her to the ground. Later, in court, the Americans will swear that she took the gun and fired it.   They will say they had no choice but to defend themselves. The Afghans will state that they didn’t see what happened but they heard shots fired. The woman says that she came to the curtain to see what was going on.

The prisoner is brought to Bagram Hospital for surgery, where a portion of her intestines is removed, along with a kidney. She is in shock and near death on arrival. Numerous transfusions are required to bring her back and stabilize her prior to and during the emergency surgery. Afterwards, she is shackled, hand and foot, to her bed. Imagine, if you will, a surgery where the patient is cut from breastbone to pubis, and then shackled to a bed on her back, bound hand and foot like a crucifixion. A pair of watchful FBI Agents stay by her side, encouraging her to talk about herself, about her life.[3] She will later refer to him as her only friends. She is heavily sedated with pain killers, and one can imagine they might be very helpful, given her restraints, and comforting, given her state of utter dependence and aloneness. A week later, she is flown to New York and arraigned before the Southern Court of New York in a wheelchair on separate charges obtaining a lethal weapon and of attempting to kill each person in the room.

This terrible story is like something out of a nightmare, or a bad novel. But it is a true story, in so far as you can find the truth of events that are disputed and cloaked in the secrecy of multiple ‘security operations’. At least it is part of the story of the ordeal of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani woman, born into an upper middle class family with conservative religious values, who placed a high value on education and on service. It is a part of the story of a young woman who came to the US, initially to Texas, later to Massachusetts to attend various colleges, eventually achieving a degree in ‘Neuroscience’, though she was did not enjoy biology and chemistry but preferred the study of psychology and education. In fact she had prepared for a career teaching developmentally disabled children.[3]

Aafia Siddiqui had lived in the US for more than 10 years, married here and borne her children here. She carried the family standard as she engaged in teaching and preaching Islam as the clearest and brightest truth and supporting Muslim Charities in war zones like Croatia and later, Afghanistan; sending Qur’ans to prisoners and teaching children at an impoverished inner city mosque. But something has gone terribly wrong to bring our heroine her to this terrible pass. And it will only get worse.

Returning to the present story, common sense would indicate it would have been very difficult for this small battered woman to have lifted and fired a powerful automatic rifle. The least amount of compassion would indicate that even if she did take the gun, even if she managed to fire the high power automatic rifle without being knocked to the ground, the action would have been in the service of escape rather than a murderous rampage. However, there is no forensic evidence whatsoever that she held the gun or fired it.  No one was shot except the prisoner herself. There were no bullet holes in the walls or ceiling of the small room, and no shell casings recovered from the floor. There were no fingerprints on the gun, and there was no gunpowder on the prisoner’s hands or the curtain in front of her. [Court Documents] Yet a year later, Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani national who never should have been extradited from Afghanistan to the US in the first place, a bright, well educated person with a PhD from Brandeis University, now incapable if a consistent description of where she had been for the past 5 years, incapable of recognizing her own son, was convicted of separate counts of attempted murder and assault for every American in the room, sentenced to 86 years in prison and incarcerated in Carswell Medical Center in Texas.

According to Cornell University Legal Information Institute, under Federal law: the maximum sentence for manslaughter (actually killing someone) is 5-7 years; the maximum sentence for  threatening the President or Vice President of the US is 5 years; the maximum sentence for assaulting a Supreme Court Officer is 1 year though if a deadly weapon is involved it goes up to 10 years. A maximum  sentence of 20 years is allowed for ”helping Al Qaeda develop a nuclear weapon”, slavery and human trafficking, ’genocidal eugenics’, selling child pornography, or performing a deadly act of violence against personnel at an international airport (so long as the person so assaulted doesn’t die).[6.2-6.5] The charges against Aafia Siddiqui have similar maximum sentencing guidelines to helping Al Qaeda build a nuclear weapon or human trafficking or assaulting  personnel in an international airport [6.1.6.6] [5.1-5.3].

The Jury deemed the defendant guilty of  all charges WITHOUT PREMEDITATION. It would seem this verdict would preclude terrorism.  Dawn Cardi, a member of Aafia Siddiqui’s defense team pointed this out in her Sentencing Statement.  She said that the normal sentence for this verdict would be 10-12 years.[3]  But the judge did apply the Terrorism Enhancement.  Though the Jury evaluated the case on the facts presented, Judge Berman’s sentence was based on the contents of her bag, never addressed in court, and FBI allegations that were never prosecuted.  He ignored clear indications that she suffered from PTSD and that she suffered from mental illness that was serious to merit her placement at the psychiatric ward at Carswell but not serious enough to influence her actions or her participation in the trial, the lack of material evidence for the crime she was convicted of and her persistent claims of prior abuse while incarcerated in Afghanistan or Pakistan.  Why was Aafia Siddiqui prosecuted for one crime and convicted of another/  One can only assume there was not enough evidence to make the preferred case.

Judy Bello is currently a full time activist thanks to the harsh and unforgiving work environment in the Software Development Industry. Finally free to focus on her own interests in her home office, she is active with The Upstate Coalition to Ground the Drones and End the Wars, and with Fellowship of Reconciliation Middle East Task Force and often posts on their blog at http://forusa.org. She has been to Iran twice with FOR Peace Delegations, and spent a month in the Kurdish city of Suleimaniya in 2009. Her personal blog, Towards a Global Perspective, is at http://blog.papillonweb.net and she is administers the Upstate anti-Drone Coalition website at http://upstatedroneaction.org. She can be reached at: jb.papillonweb@gmail.com

Sources:

  1.  The Express Tribune: Wikileaks Aafia’s Incriminating Purse
  2. Court Document, USA vs. Aafia Siddiqui, Document #256 (Aafia Siddiqui’s testimony to FBI agents at her bedside while in Bagram hospital after her surgery)
  3. Sentencing, USA vs. Aafia Siddiqui, Document #314
  4. Case Summary, 1:08-cr-00826-RMB USA v. Siddiqui, “Count 1: Conspiracy(with whom?) to Kill A US Citizen [] Count 4: Violent Crime/Drugs/Machine Gun (!) (Use of a firearm during crime of violence(?)“  — Emphasis and red comments interjected are mine.
  5. Definitions from Findlaw.com
    1. Attempt to Commit Murder or Manslaughter
    2. Protection of Officers and Employees of the United States
    3. Assaulting Resisting or Impeding Certain Officers or Employees
    4. *** Armed Career Criminal Act (Terrorism Enhancement)
  6. Other crimes in 18 U.S.C.
    1. Cornell LII: Trafficking with respect to peonage, slavery, involuntary servitude, or forced labor
    2. Cornell LII: Violence at International Airports
    3. Cornell LII: Manslaughter
    4. Cornell LII: Threatening the President
    5. Cornell LII: Assaulting a Supreme Court Officer
    6. Cornell LII: Helping Al Qaeda develop a nuclear weapon
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Judith Bello is a long time peace and justice activist who blogs at The Deconstructed Globe.     She is a charter member of  The Upstate Coalition to Ground the Drones and End the Wars, which is a statewide organization that is in a confrontation with Hancock Air National Guard Base to end their piloting of Reaper drones over Afghanistan and the use of  weaponized drones for targeted killing around the world.   She administers the website for the Upstate Coalition, along with the websites for several other peace and justice organizations.  Offline, she lives in a suburb of Rochester, NY.

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