She was labelled by American reporters as “Lady Al Qaeda”, one of the most dangerous women in the world, and her arrest was called a tremendous gain in the war on terror. In April 2010, after a meagre 14 day trial in New York and a three day jury deliberation, the American court found Dr. Aafia Siddiqui guilty of attempted murder of US military officers in Afghanistan in 2008. Just days ago in a long awaited sentencing trial she was given 86 years in prison, a punishment that hardly seems fit for the crime.
So who is Dr. Aafia Siddiqui? She is a Pakistani mother of three who was educated in the US as a neuroscientist, an identity that would normally be considered a symbol of pride for Pakistanis. I, like many of you, learned of Siddiqui in 2003 when she first went missing in Karachi, Pakistan on her way to the airport with her three kids. I have since been determined to learn more about this woman and this case, but the severe lack of information and high levels of confusion surrounding her story have made this a challenge. Is she really a terrorist? Was she held in a secret US prison for 5 years? I do not know her personally. I do not know whether she is guilty or innocent. I am only aware of her image as has been constructed for us by the media, both Pakistani and American. I do know that her case and treatment were not based on principles of justice, humanity and equity. The case of Siddiqui is now a symbol for the cases of thousands of missing persons under the ‘war on terror’ policy and serves as a reality check for the rest of us who think we will be, forever and always, protected by our human rights.
So What Is Her Story?
Siddiqui reappeared distressed and frail in 2008 wandering around in Ghazni, Afghanistan with a twelve year old boy whom she did not know was her son. Because she was acting suspiciously, according to the Afghan authorities, she was taken into custody and searched. She was found with a bag full of maps, chemicals, and other materials that looked like she was plotting a terrorist attack. She said at that time that she was given the bag by someone unknown to her. So where was she between 2003 and 2008? The US denies holding her in custody and she/her family indicate that she was in a secret prison in Bagram, Afghanistan, being tortured and raped. For five years she did not know where her children were, punishment enough many mothers would say. Her six month old baby boy is believed to have been killed. Her other two children were returned to her family after 2008.
Just Doesn’t Add Up
During her initial time under arrest and prior to her trial, she was not assigned lawyers and the Pakistanis had set up a team of lawyers to support her defense. However, there was a problem in her actually accessing these lawyers so then the US court appointed her a local lawyer. It was only at some point before the trial that it became clear that she was being charged with attempted murder of US military staff while she was in their custody. Surprisingly “Lady Al Qaeda” was not charged with terrorism or anything related to the years before she was found. Given the strong public outcry in America since 9/11, high levels of public concern and fear of terrorism, and the discourse surrounding the war on terror, why would a suspected terrorist then not be charged with terrorism?
It was also not clear how a frail woman of her size could even move herself off of her position of being tied down on a gurney in the interrogation area behind a curtain. How could she bend over to pick up the weapon on the floor and slide it under the curtain without trained guards noticing it? How could she know how to use this weapon? The testimonies of the three guards did not match in the trial of how this actually occurred. No one was actually hurt in the case, except that Siddiqui was shot at and did not receive medical treatment until months later. Defence lawyers argued there was no physical evidence, such as fingerprints or gunpowder traces, to show that she even grabbed the rifle. How could there be a conviction without hard evidence?
She had limited access to her own lawyers and no contact with family was allowed. Nearing the end of the trial, the judge left these words for the jury, “if you do not convict her you are saying that the US government is a liar and you are going against your army.” A statement many legal experts declare is a clear pass for an appeal and hardly characteristic of judiciary in America.
It is also noteworthy that the Pakistani press was not allowed in the courtroom to cover the trial until much later on. An NYPD press pass was required, which usually is required only for crime reporters and is very difficult to obtain. The general press was not allowed in the courtroom, and those who were allowed were seated in the overflow room so they could not see exhibits and other evidence. Thus, it appears as if there was an attempt to limit the public’s awareness of this case.
The ‘War on Terror’ Policy
It is important to know that the ‘war on terror’ is not being fought under the judicial system as we know in Canada or America, which is based on the rule of law, the premise of being innocent until proven guilty, fair trial and due process, and so on. When we think of a criminal case here in North America, it begins with a proper investigation that provides sufficient cause for an arrest warrant, an arrest is made, the suspect is read his/her rights, s/he is told why they are under arrest and the exact charges laid against them, they are given an opportunity to make a phone call and have the right to legal representation before they make any statement. At the trial, the prosecution must present evidence to prove the accused is guilty to a jury of his/her peers. There are checks and balances along the way, and not that the system is perfect, but we accept the principles upon which it is based and have the right to appeal if those principles have some how been violated. Judges and lawyers are also held legally and professionally accountable if their actions in anyway compromise the due process.
However, in the war on terror lead by the US, a country infamous for citing human rights violations in other countries, the judicial system as we have known it has been done away with. Persons have just gone missing. Under this policy, a person can be taken in to custody, interrogated for years, and taken to secret prisons. The person need not be told (and usually is not) why they have been taken, or where they are, and neither is their family informed. They do not have access to legal counsel, nor do they have rights to a phone call, and so on. The war on terror is being fought using only intelligence that the American military (and cooperating countries) obtain from detainees, likely under duress or torture. The information can then be used to ‘kidnap’ more persons, without any investigation into the reliability of this information or any evidence. There are estimated thousands of such missing persons in Pakistan.
In Balochistan alone over 4000 persons are reportedly missing and there are 8000 cases of missing persons across the country since the start of the war on terror. The exact number of missing persons and victims of “forced disappearances” are difficult to confirm mostly because of difficulties in finding accurate information. There are no documents to go by, only reports by family members who may or may not file formally with the police.
Poster Child for All Missing Persons
This is what happened to Dr. Aafia Sidiqui when she just simply went missing in 2003. Her family did not know what happened to her until they received phone calls from ‘anti-terror agencies’ saying that they have taken her and that the family should not make any public statements regarding her disappearance or else Siddiqui would be killed. The family believes these calls were from anti-terrorist agencies and that the Pakistani government was involved in handing her over to the American FBI forces. No one has actually come forward to claim a role in her abduction.
Her profile seemed quite unusual for a terrorist. How could this mother of three be a terrorist? We do not know for sure if she was or was not, or to what extent if so. There is also the suspicion that her ex-husband is the one who turned her in to save himself as the couple got phone calls early on from US authorities regarding suspicious behaviour in the US.
We may never have these answers. The point here is not for me to help you decide whether this particular woman is guilty or innocent, that is what our judicial system is for. The greater point is that the process must be a just one based on evidence and logic, and we must fight for these values of justice. She is representing thousands of missing persons whose names never make it to the press. This could be any one of us. Again, no evidence is required, no answers need be given, and the US is not required by any law in the world to let anyone know who is in their custody, why and what they are doing to that person. There is no accountability in how long they are held or where they are held. What if you were walking down the street and this happened to you? Under the current war-on-terror policy, you would have no rights to utilize.
Questions Raised from this Case
What about innocent until proven guilty? What about basic humanity?
What if it was an American or British woman captured in Pakistan with three children, one only six months old? How would the reaction be different?
How did she end up in Afghanistan?
If she was running from authorities or out to commit a terrorist attack, why would she take her three children with her away from their family home in Karachi? Why were all her children not released at the same time?
How can a frail woman of 90lbs lift and drag the heavy weapon or even know how to use it?
How can a woman just be taken off the streets with three children? Why was her family threatened upon her disappearance in 2003? Why were they told to not go to the press or the police or her kidnappers would kill her?
Even if you support the war on terror, is it justified that a woman could be taken with three children? Why was she not charged with terrorism?
Is this a just policy? How can we change it and improve it based on justice?
How can we fight terror, but at the same time be true to the very values of justice we are known for around the world?
How can we justify no accountability on the treatment of detainees, no accountability of what is done with the information received under duress and torture, and no accountability for human rights violations?
On the other hand, why would the US and other governments do this? If they are focused on fighting terror why did they not charge her or any accomplices with terrorism? Part of the answer, many critics of the case say, is that the American government does not want to confirm that they held a woman in custody and tortured her for five years. They do not want their private and underground mission including large violations of human rights exposed to the world. The freedom-loving people of America would surely retaliate against such a policy. Many believe that such a venomous and hateful response by the U.S. is indication that Siddiqui may have initially been recruited by the U.S. to support the gathering of intelligence and infiltrate terrorist cells, but that she may not have fulfilled her duties or switched sides. So is the US government afraid of exposing their strategies to their own constituents?
So What Can We Do?
It may seem like there is little for people like you and I to do in a case like this. However, the greatest contribution the average person can make is of raising awareness and asking a lot of questions. Simple awareness can lead us to organizing, campaigning, networking and building a movement to create and sustain justice around this ‘war on terror’ policy. Many people are not even aware of this case, the strange details surrounding it, or even why it is such a critical one for all of our human rights. Information is essential so that we the people can truly democratically decide whether our governments are in fact representative of our values. Is the US practicing the values of democracy, justice and human rights that they preach around the world? Siddiqui has indeed become a symbol for such pretence. I will leave you with the below quotes.
“Everybody knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing, you hold down the adjoining.” Saul Bellow
“In Germany they came first for the Communist, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.” Martin Niemoeller
To support Siddiqui and for more info on her case, click HERE
About the author: Tahmena Bokhari is a dual-citizen of Canada and Pakistan, and has worked significantly on social causes in both places. She is a strong advocate for social justice and creating positive change. Bokhari first publicly spoke out about the case of Aafia Siddiqui earlier this year and the above is a summary of her talks.
To learn more about Bokhari, you can join her page at:
To learn more about Bokhari, you can join her page at: