Will Aafia Siddiqui Live to Tell her Tale?

"Whatever the truth, it is immaterial. Nothing justifies the depths of sadism that the US government and its lackeys routinely descend to," remarked Najma Sadeque, a Pakistan-based rights activist and senior journalist, referring to the treatment meted out to Dr Aafia Siddiqui by the authorities in the United States. 

Karachi-born neuroscientist Siddiqui, a postgraduate from MIT, is said to be the first woman to be sought by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in connection with its pursuit of Al-Qaeda. Siddiqui, along with her three children - aged between four months and seven years - had been missing since 2003 when she suddenly resurfaced in Ghazni, Afghanistan, on July 17. She was later arrested and brought to New York on charges of assaulting and attempting to kill US personnel while in detention in Afghanistan. The FBI said she was arrested from outside the governor's office in Ghazni and she was shot at twice. 

On September 3, Siddiqi, 36, was produced before a federal grand jury in New York, which indicted her for possession of handwritten notes referring to a 'mass casualty attack' at various prominent locations in the US, such as Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, Wall Street and the Brooklyn Bridge. 

However, activists and her family believe that she is being targeted. "An ordinary Pakistani [has been] wrongfully taken to a foreign country without established judicial processes," said Dr Fouzia Siddiqui, Aafia's elder sister. Even the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has insisted that she was picked up by a Pakistani intelligence agency and handed over to the US authorities.

The picture that was released when she was brought to the court in New York showed a woman who seemed to have experienced years of torture - a broken and badly fixed nose, made up teeth, and crumbled lips. The HRCP described her as a person "almost as if on the deathbed". Gaunt, wounded, she was unable to even walk by herself.

Her resurfacing, and that too in such a frail condition, sent shock waves throughout Pakistan, which has demanded her immediate repatriation. In the five years since she had gone missing, Siddiqui was all but forgotten till Yvonne Ridley, a British journalist, gave her case a new lease of life just a few weeks prior to her resurfacing in July. Ridley had read about an unknown female detainee, 'Prisoner 650', mentioned by Moazzam Begg, an ex-Guantanamo detainee, who was also held in Bagram, Afghanistan, in his book 'Enemy Combatant'. 

Criticising the government, Fauzia told the Pakistan Senate that "her torture is a crime beyond anything she was ever accused of (which was basically nothing) and this is a slap on the honor of our nation and the whole of humanity."

By the looks of it, Aafia Siddiqui is not expected to get a fair deal in the US. Most people feel that New York was deliberately chosen for her trial, as the emotions associated with the September 11 tragedy still run high there. "The location of the court is a mile from ground zero in New York," Fauzia pointed out. 

Even the whereabouts of her children was unknown until very recently. The US authorities have now acknowledged that the 11-year-old boy captured along with Siddiqui in Ghazni, was her eldest son, Ahmed. Although Ahmed has now been handed over to Aafia's sister in Karachi, the whereabouts of the other two children are still accounted for. 

Siddiqui has also not been allowed to meet with her family. Only her brother, an architect living in Houston, Texas, got to see her when she was brought to court on August 11. When the brother and sister came face-to-face, she was looking extremely frail, slumped in a wheelchair with blood oozing from her wounds. When her lawyers pleaded with the judge to make sure she received medical care, the prosecutors justified withholding medical care because she was a "high-security risk". Her lawyers also requested for an evaluation of Siddiqui's psychological condition. Noting her deteriorating condition, Judge Robert Pitman ordered that a doctor evaluate her within 24 hours. 

However, speaking to the media a few days later, Elizabeth Fink, one of Siddiqui's lawyers, revealed that she had not been granted the court-ordered medical treatment. On August 25, the lawyers also demanded that their client be transferred to a hospital for treatment of gunshot wounds, but to no avail.

Expressing their outrage at the treatment meted out to their client, the lawyers also said that Siddiqui was refusing to meet them because the authorities compelled her to undergo a "dehumanizing and degrading" full body search. Sahar Shafqat, an activist and political science teacher at St Mary's College in Maryland, who was also present at the press conference, revealed, "The lawyer gave very explicit details. Aafia has to go through a full strip search before and after her meeting with the lawyers... This means she has to open her mouth, lift her breasts, bend forward and hold her buttocks up, then squat and cough..." A disturbed Shafqat added that she had never heard of such humiliating treatment, "I felt upset, very angry as well as humiliated... no human being should be dishonored like this." 

Meanwhile, all Fouzia could say about her sister was: "She's dying. So why is she still in prison?" She told the Senate, "We do not believe Aafia can get justice in the US. They are sure to make her out to be a major terror figure to mask the five years of torture..." 

And she is not alone in her fears. Zaid Hamid, who heads Brasstacks, an Islamabad-based think tank said, "I have no hope from this government; neither from Hussain Haqqani [Pakistan's ambassador in Washington] nor from Zardari [President of Pakistan]. Only Allah remains her protector." While he said he believed in miracles, he was worried that she may not live to see justice being done. "She is in bad health and her condition is deteriorating fast." 

However, Hamid did ask the question that has been on everyone's minds since the day she was arrested: "Where was she for the last five years?" Her lawyers say they have evidence that she had been held in a secret US detention centre and subjected to physical and psychological torture and sexual abuse. Elaine Whitfield Sharp, a Siddiqui camp lawyer, said, "We do know that she was at Bagram for a long time. According to my client she was there for years and she was held in American custody; her treatment was horrendous."

Sharp said that Siddiqui was released from Bagram and then picked up again and charged with "conveniently incriminating evidence". "She is the ultimate victim of the American dark side," said Fink, talking to the Associated Press. 

Till Siddiqui is allowed to tell her side of the story, no one will ever know the full facts of her case. On October 3, she was moved to Texas for psychiatric evaluation but her medical treatment is still not confirmed. And with her health rapidly failing, her loved ones wonder: will Aafia live to tell her tale?


More by :  ZofeenT Ebrahim

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