The world has heard the stories of many Af-Pak women and their distress as victims of Taliban tormentors, which US and NATO drones have done nothing to diminish. This is about a woman who is also likely to draw the least public sympathy outside the terrain that constitutes the main theater of the “war on terror” because it is the Taliban, the fundamentalists and the far right in Pakistan who are clamoring the loudest for her release. They say she is being punished because she is a devout Muslim.
Dr. Aafia Siddiqui was sentenced to a probably unprecedented 86 years of imprisonment by a US federal court in Manhattan on September 23. Thirty-eight-year-old Siddiqui, a US-educated neuroscientist from Karachi in Pakistan, was convicted after a jury trial of assault with intent to murder her US interrogators in Afghanistan. The charges carried a maximum sentence of life in prison. She, however, has received a much, much harsher sentence than what life imprisonment normally means.
The sentence – along with the fact that she is a mother of three young children – was sure to elicit sympathy for her anywhere, especially her own homeland. Adding to the outcry in Pakistan over her punishment is the widespread outrage over much that US and NATO forces have been doing in the Af-Pak region in the name of an anti-terror war. The protests against the court’s “injustice” to Siddiqui have also been combined with protests against Islamabad’s perceived subservience to Washington.
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Inevitably, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani’s government in Pakistan has got embroiled in the affair. Siddiqui’s fate has also become a red-hot political issue for all political parties, including one under formation.
The government has called upon Washington to repatriate Siddiqui and vowed to fight for “justice” for her along with her family. The US, in turn, has offered to send her back home in order to serve her sentence there if Pakistan signs two international conventions relating to prisoner exchange along with it.
The ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has rallied behind the government. The main opposition party, Pakistan Muslim League (PML-Nawaz), has articulated the demand for Siddiqui’s release more aggressively. The Pakistan Muslim League (Qaid-e-Azam), or the PM-Q, originally floated by former President Pervez Musharraf, is speaking with two voices on the issue.
It is going to be an important issue for the All-Pakistan Muslim League (APML), which Musharraf now proposes to launch from his London exile. He has had to deny, hotly and repeatedly, the charge of his involvement in the mysterious arrest of Siddiqui in an Afghan city two years ago.
Her pre-arrest past was not shrouded in secrecy. Siddiqui moved to Houston, Texas, on a student visa in 1990, joining her brother. She attended the University of Houston for three semesters, then shifted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) after being awarded a full scholarship.
Siddiqui moved back to Pakistan in 2002. She disappeared with her three young children in March 2003, shortly after the arrest of her second husband’s uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged chief planner of the 9/11 attacks. Her whereabouts remained unknown for over five years, until her arrest in July 2008.
One of her close relatives told a Pakistani newspaper: “They’re all lying … there’s something about Aafia. And we don’t know about it.”
According to the Afghan police, she was carrying in her purse handwritten notes and a computer thumb drive containing recipes for conventional bombs and weapons of mass destruction, instructions on how to make machines to shoot down US drones, descriptions of New York City landmarks with references to a mass casualty attack, and two pounds of sodium cyanide in a glass jar.
Siddiqui was apprehended by Ghazni Province police officers outside the governor’s compound. With two small bags at her side, crouching on the ground, she aroused the suspicion of a man who feared she might be concealing a bomb under her burqa. A shopkeeper noticed a woman in a burqa drawing a map, which is suspicious in Afghanistan, where women are generally illiterate.
Questions about her entire case have been raised following conflicting accounts of immediate post-arrest events. The official US version says that, on July 18, two FBI agents, a US Army warrant officer, a US Army captain and their military interpreters arrived in Ghazni to interview Siddiqui at an Afghan police facility. They met in a room partitioned by a curtain, behind which Siddiqui reportedly stood.
According to this version, the warrant officer sat down adjacent to the curtain, and put his loaded M4 carbine on the floor by his feet, next to the curtain. Siddiqui drew back the curtain, picked up the gun and pointed it at the captain. Then, she was said to have yelled, “Get the fuck out of here … May the blood of (unintelligible) be on your [head or hands].” The captain dove for cover to his left, as she yelled “Allah-o-Akbar” and fired at least two shots at them, missing them – so goes the interrogators’ report.
According to Siddiqui’s version, she stood up to see who was on the other side of the curtain. After one of the startled soldiers shouted, “She is loose,” she was shot. On regaining consciousness, she heard someone say, “We could lose our jobs.”
The Afghan police version says that the US troops had demanded that she be handed over, disarmed the Afghans when they refused and then shot Siddiqui mistakenly, thinking she was a suicide bomber.
During her trial, the defense said there was no forensic evidence that the gun was fired in the interrogation room.
Siddiqui was taken to Bagram Air Base by helicopter in critical condition. Her trial was an agonizingly prolonged one, the longest delay being of six months, allowed in order to perform psychiatric evaluations. She was given routine mental health check-ups ten times in August and six times in September. Finally, the judge held that she “may have some mental health issues,” but was competent to stand trial.
Siddiqui drew much ire in the US when she said she did not want Jews on the jury.
She demanded that all prospective jurors be DNA-tested. The defense argued, in extenuation of her comments, that her incarceration had damaged her mind.
She drew some sympathy, however, from the public as well as the judge after her sentence, when she urged forgiveness and asked the Pakistani people not to retaliate.
Sections of liberal opinion in Pakistan are concerned over the mileage that fundamentalist jihadi forces are drawing from the issue. A victory here can, ironically, give those forces added social legitimacy when they attack women for not being burqa-clad, for not being Islamic enough, for being seen with men etc. That is the complexity of it all. But even these liberal sections agree that the US role in the affair has done nothing to enfeeble those forces.
Lahore-based Daily Times, a leading newspaper, says: “The US is already viewed as an authoritarian and arrogant superpower, and after this verdict its character is bound to take on an arbitrary dimension in perceptions. A murky case to begin with, Dr. Aafia Siddiqui’s ordeal is the subject of many speculations. It is still unclear what exactly happened to Dr. Aafia after her alleged disappearance from Karachi … it seems as if the US is bent upon making a horrific example out of Dr. Aafia.”
The paper adds: “Now that the case is out of the courts, people will be waiting to see how the Obama administration will act. Only time will tell if the US president will step in to mitigate the consequences of this strange sentence by either pardoning Dr Aafia or sending her back to Pakistan …”
Dawn, another newspaper, says: “… the case of Aafia Siddiqui was wrapped from the very beginning in all the contradictions and suspicions that characterize relations between Pakistan and the US.” It, however, adds: “Denialism embedded deep in the public psyche has allowed the real threat to the Pakistani state and society, religious extremism, to grow to dangerous proportions…. But long after the story of Dr. Siddiqui will eventually fade, Pakistan will still be faced with an internal enemy it has not even begun to comprehend.”
The release or repatriation of Siddiqui will cause much understandable jubilation as justice done to a “daughter of Pakistan.” We must all welcome such a dénouement – but also hope that it won’t be a victory for the Taliban in their war on women.
The story of Siddiqui provides a particularly sad illustration of the cruel fate of women in this war-torn region.