The 86-year sentence handed down by a US court to Dr Aafia Siddiqui means the neuroscientist will likely spend the rest of her life in a US jail. In the courtroom, Aafia said she would not appeal the decision, questioning the utility of doing so. The sentence, however, will not bring the Aafia Siddiqui saga to a close. There are far too many lingering questions which are unlikely to ever be answered and which have caused divisions, not only in Pakistan, but even among Aafia’s relatives. We still do not know with any certainty where Aafia was for the five years before she was apprehended by US soldiers in Afghanistan. Her supporters believe she is the “Grey Lady of Bagram”, held without charge at a Nato facility after being handed over to the US by Pakistani agencies. Others, including her ex-husband, believe she was a fully-fledged member of al Qaeda, married a relative of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and plotted against the US. Yet others have suggested even more, saying that she was in Pakistan with the full knowledge of the government.
We also don’t know what became of her children. Their fate remains a mystery with the identity of the eldest boy, returned from Afghanistan, the subject of some doubt. Two of them, according to her family in Karachi, were dropped at her parent’s house in Karachi but we have never been told by whom and under what circumstances. Whatever else may be true or untrue in the strange saga of a young woman who excelled academically at a US institute but is accused of developing al Qaeda links during this time, there can be no doubt her children are innocent and do not deserve any kind of punishment.
As the many supporters of Aafia launch a campaign for her return to the country, we need to also look at the case more rationally. Her involvement with al Qaeda has not been legally proven as it was never up for trial, but the presence circumstantial evidence indicates that, at the very least, she may have materially supported the terrorist group. However, that the US chose not to charge her for terrorism offences shows the lack of legally-permissible proof on this count. That she was never charged for terrorism also adds some fuel to the accusations that she was tortured in custody. Any evidence that the US garnered through torture would not be permitted in court. The ill-treatment Dr Aafia suffered should, of course, never have been inflicted on her. It is obvious she has indeed been subjected at various times to both mental and physical hardship.
The charges against her were limited to the attempted murder of US soldiers. Dr Aafia did herself no favours at the trial and so no one should be surprised that such a stiff penalty was handed down. In open court, she denounced the trial as a farce and even had to be escorted out of the courtroom on two occasions. In addition, cyanide was found in her handbag at the time of the shooting. A psychiatrist declared her legally sane, and despite having the right to stay silent and against the advice of her own lawyers, she took to the stand. She also insisted Jews should not be allowed to serve on the jury.
As a result of public outcry against the sentence, Interior Minister Rehman Malik has requested that the US repatriate Dr Aafia Siddiqui to Pakistan. There are both legal and political problems with this request. The crime for which she was convicted took place in Afghanistan on a US base and involved US soldiers. Other than Aafia’s citizenship, Pakistan has no connection to the case. Furthermore, there is the very real possibility that Aafia will be freed due to public pressure if she is returned to Pakistan. Given the enormity of the charges against her, this could lead to complications. We have already spent two million dollars on Aafia’s trial and possible appeal. It is time to admit she has been found guilty, with plenty of evidence. Taking this any further will show that the government is ruled by emotion rather than political reality.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 25th, 2010.