Justice: Aafia Siddiqui and the ongoing war on terror

A troubling conviction

“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and …the democratic control and availability of knowledge will define whether we are a democracy or we are a propaganda state controlled by elites that feed us information.”
-John Nichols

On February 3, 2010, Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, a 37-year-old woman of Pakistani descent, was convicted by a New York jury of attempted murder, armed assault, and usage and carrying of a firearm. She had initially been arrested in July 2008 in the city of Ghazni, Afghanistan, for carrying two pounds of poisonous sodium cyanide, the names of various New York City landmarks, and other incriminating documents such as information on biological weapons and notes regarding the conduction of mass attacks. She was tried, however, for apparently attempting to shoot American army officers after being arrested. While the trial appears to have concluded with few uncertainties on the part of many onlookers, essential questions remain unanswered. These questions suggest that there is much more to this story than is apparent and ought to make us wonder what amount of vital information is being withheld from the public, and whether this withholding is hurting our abilities to make impartial and just decisions.

Unbeknownst to the jurors before whom Dr. Aafia Siddiqui was tried, the FBI had started to become suspicious of Siddiqui and her family long before her arrest in 2008. Living in Boston at the time, she and her husband, Mohammed Amjad Khan, were questioned in the aftermath of September 11 because of certain online purchases they had made (including night-vision goggles and body armor), for donating to charities that were under scrutiny at the time, and for connections to two Saudi nationals, one of whom had money transferred to them from the Saudi government for medical treatment. Because the purchases were primarily linked to Khan, he underwent more thorough interrogation; Siddiqui was released after brief questioning. The two then moved to Pakistan with their two children. The cited reason behind their decision was that it was difficult to live as a Muslim in the United States after September 11. Siddiqui’s lawyer, Elaine Sharp, however, suggests a conflict between Siddiqui and Khan regarding the decision: Sharp states that Siddiqui had wanted to continue living in the US while Khan wanted the family to be raised in Pakistan, presumably to raise the children in a more religiously supportive environment.

At any rate, after their final return to Pakistan, Siddiqui had her third child and the couple subsequently underwent a divorce. It is unclear whether divergent religious views played any role in the matter: accounts differ as to who tended to hold more unconventional religious opinions, Siddiqui or Khan. That Siddiqui was fervent about Islam is undisputed; from her college years as a student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she is known to have supported Islamic causes passionately and even received a grant in her sophomore year to study Islam and Pakistan. Her peers at the time describe her as being, “religious,” “nice, soft-spoken” but “not terribly assertive.” She is also known to have been active with the local mosque, the Mosque for the Praising of Allah. According to Abdullah Faruuq, the mosque’s Imam or leader, she used to make statements like, “I show my hands, show my face. I drive my own car. I have my credit cards.” He continues, “Aafia Siddiqui was an American girl. And a good sister.” This general appreciation for her character extends into the academic realm: Dr. Paul DiZio, who served on her dissertation committee at Brandeis University, states that “She just seemed like a very kind person.” The possibility remains that she managed to deceive those who knew her and turn against the country that gave her shelter, food, and opportunities, but there is insufficient evidence to suggest that this was the case.

Within two years of Siddiqui’s move to Pakistan, in the March of 2003, Khalid Shaykh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the September 11 attacks, was arrested; he, in turn, named Aafia Siddiqui as an al-Qaeda operant. So began Siddiqui’s nightmare. About a month after Khalid Shaykh Mohammed’s arrest, Siddiqui herself went missing. She set out with her three children from her mother’s home in Pakistan where she was staying at the time, heading for her uncle’s home in Islamabad. Her family did not hear from her after she left, though her mother states that a man on a motorcycle told her that Siddiqui and her children were being held somewhere and threatened her to remain silent. No one else knows for sure what happened to her, but the Pakistani public generally believes that she was picked up by Pakistani intelligence at the behest of the American government. Pakistani newspapers reported as much, as did an official from the Pakistani Interior Ministry, and two unnamed American officials. Later on, however, any such knowledge was denied on the part of the Pakistani and American governments and both continued to be “on the lookout” for Aafia Siddiqui.

Siddiqui’s disappearance dated from 2003 to 2008 and is not unique. Pakistani intelligence officers have long been suspected of keeping people in illegal detention. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan currently notes that 242 people have gone missing in Pakistan in 2009, and Defense of Human Rights in Pakistan states that more than 100 women remain in illegal detention at the moment. Such cases of extrajudicial detention were condemned by Amnesty International in 2006. Amnesty stated that the Pakistani and US governments were guilty of transgressing international and national laws in the war on terror: “Many people have been detained incommunicado in undisclosed places of detention and tortured or ill-treated. [Amnesty International] is also concerned about the clandestine nature of the conduct of the “war on terror” and reports that Pakistani and US law enforcement may have used force, including lethal force, unnecessarily and excessively.”

The same report continues on to state that Dr. Siddiqui is one example of extrajudicial arrest and detention, having been abducted “by FBI-hired intelligence personnel,” possibly tortured and maltreated, and that her children’s lives were also at risk because of the situation. Other sources suggest that she may have been raped and underwent severe psychological torture and duress. Indeed, at certain points during her trial this January, she alluded to the torture of her children and her coercion to cooperate with intelligence officers in order to protect them. A year after Amnesty International published this report, the organization also co-authored a paper on U.S. responsibility for “enforced disappearances” with five other human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch. In this paper, as well, Siddiqui was named as a missing person, and the U.S was implicated in the act.

After five years in disappearance, Siddiqui was “finally” arrested in July 2008. She was picked up with her oldest son in front of a hospital in Ghazni, Afghanistan with two pounds of poisonous sodium cyanide and other incriminating documents, along with crudely drawn pictures of guns and references to NYC landmarks. Petra Bartosiewicz, a journalist who thoroughly researched Siddiqui’s case, traveling throughout Pakistan to do so, wrote about Siddiqui’s case in Harper’s Magazine and Time Magazine. Bartosiewicz suggests that the material found with Dr. Siddiqui in Ghazni were “bizarrely incriminating, almost you would write into a movie script.” Siddiqui was initially arrested on suspicions of being a suicide bomber, which she was not, but then was withheld for the materials found on her person and because she had been “wanted” for the past five years.

Siddiqui was beaten and caned. The following morning, she met US army officials who had come to interrogate her. She was, at the time, by a bed, and there was a partly open curtain between her and the officers. According to the prosecution, she picked up a rifle and shot at the officers, yelling “God is great” according to some accounts, or “Death to America,” according to others. She was then stopped and shot in the stomach. It was on this incident that she was taken to court and tried; it was on this incident, and its inadequate evidence, that she was convicted.

Petra Bartosiewicz notes that there is a fundamental problem with the way the war on terror is conducted. The war on terror is not solely a punitive undertaking but also a preventive operation to determine who will commit such and such act, what act will happen where and when. In other words, the war on terror necessarily deals with the future and not with the past alone. Therefore, the emphasis so far has not been on evidence as much as on information-gathering, and that information is gathered from captured terrorists and accused terrorists. Future interrogations and one’s placement on the list of suspects is based on this intelligence; she states that “intelligence is the fodder for these interrogations.” People who are convicted of terrorism, or are found suspicious of harboring such intentions, are convicted based on the testimony of other convicts or detainees. The nature of cases wherein the crime has already been committed is inherently different: evidence can be gathered that can allow some kind of a firm conclusion to be established regarding the guilt of the defendants.

The problem with this approach, however, is that, in order to produce this intelligence, the government needs increasing number of detainees who are willing to speak. It is very likely that a great amount of false intelligence is generated this way because interrogation tactics (ranging from keeping prisoners awake for eleven days straight to waterboarding to keeping them in a box full of insects) discourage silence, even when one knows nothing or has nothing to contribute. These tactics create a hurdle for investigators and certainly are a bit inconvenient for the innocent who get arrested and undergo such physical hardships. Because one of the primary tools used is associations—who knows whom—it is too easy to name someone for the sake of naming, and not because the named is guilty of the alleged crime. The relationships between these associations must be investigated more thoroughly and must be based on sturdier evidence than the testimony of the abused. Not doing so robs us of our conscience, and leaves our execution of justice mangled and meaningless.

Dr. Aafia Siddiqui was convicted of the crimes she was arrested for by a New York jury that was not privy to the full length of her story or her trials. What they knew was that this veiled woman (dubbed “Lady al-Qaeda” and “Terror Ma” by the local newspapers) had supposedly attempted to shoot American officers. They did not know of the years she had probably spent in Pakistan or Afghanistan, quietly abducted and imprisoned (as major human rights organizations maintain about her case); they were also unaware of the torture she had probably undergone (ranging from mental torture to physical abuse, possibly including rape); they remained ignorant of the condition and state of her three children and what they had undergone. Today, the oldest son has been found and is being taken care of; however, no one knows what happened to the younger two (one of whom was an American citizen). Siddiqui suggested that they may have been tortured or killed in prison. What effect must this have had on Siddiqui’s mind?

Furthermore, unable appropriately to represent herself, Siddiqui likely left a negative impression on the jury, which had already absorbed a certain amount of negativity related to Islam and Muslims from the external world. Tina Foster, Executive Director of the International Justice Network, stated that Siddiqui had been presented as a dangerous woman even before she had been brought into the courtroom; the standard maxim of “innocent until proven guilty,” which is applied to suspects in any given trial, did not seem to be applied here. Her image, one of a veiled Muslim woman, played against her, as did her inability to adequately represent herself. She inappropriately requested that Jews be excluded from the jury, and went on a series of additional rants that bolstered her image as a demented fanatic, hard to sympathize with, hard to understand, and committed to fighting the principles our country is based on. The jury and the public at large was incapable of seeing past this because as both Bartosiewicz and Foster noted, they were not privy to the “backstory,” i.e. the background of this situation, and the story of the making, or perhaps destruction, of this mind.

The jury was unaware of any of this. Judge Richard Berman disallowed any mention of Siddiqui’s connections to terrorism during the trial: the trial was to deal solely with the July 2008 shootings. Unfortunately, however, that the jury was not privy to her past trials, and that they had accepted this depiction of her as a dangerous psychopath, may have also contributed to her eventual unjust conviction. Even if the July 2008 alleged shootings are considered in isolation, without consideration of the “backstory” and Siddiqui’s trials in extrajudicial detention (which implicate both the Pakistani and American governments), there was insufficient evidence to convict her. As Elaine Sharp, Siddiqui’s lawyer, stated: “There was no forensic evidence, and the witness testimony was divergent, to say the least. This is not a just and right verdict. It is a just and right system, but…juries do make mistakes, juries do go wrong. My opinion is that this was a verdict based on fear, and not fact.” Bartosiewicz states that there was no forensic evidence suggesting that Siddiqui even shot the rifle: there were no fingerprints on the rifle, there were no bullet holes in the wall (the only bullet holes in the wall were there the day before the shootings, as video cameras make evident), and no one was shot. In addition, eyewitness testimony was divergent: some stated that she was on the bed, others said she was beside it, others said that she did not shoot the rifle, and yet others state that she had simply been peeping around the curtain.

That she was convicted in spite of this suggests that Sharp’s assessment, that this was a “verdict based on fear, and not fact,” may have some truth. In fact, it seems logical: a raving woman who has been abused by the media, misunderstood, in an environment that is somewhat hostile to Muslims, specifically those linked in any way to terrorism or violence, would produce this reaction. As Glenn Greenwald states in a recent column on Salon.com, “The Lynch-Mob Mentality”: “How could so many people be collectively worked up into that level of irrational frenzy, where they cheered for people’s torturous death as “witches” without any real due process or meaningful evidence? But all one has to do is look at our current Terrorism debates and it’s easy to see how things like that happen. It’s just pure mob mentality…” Greenwald compares the current tendency to condemn anyone associated with terrorism of being a terrorist with the Red Scare and the Salem Witch Trials: because the government suggests a link between a person and terrorism, such a link is taken to be valid—it must exist.

In addition to Siddiqui’s well-publicized case, there is also the case of Tarek Mehanna, a young Muslim male from Massachusetts. He was first arrested for allegedly concocting plans to execute a mass shooting at a mall; again, there was insufficient evidence to condemn him. He himself maintained that he did nothing wrong, and certainly nothing illegal. He was released briefly and then re-arrested last year, this time with his sentence bumped up from eight years to life in prison under President Barack Obama. Yet another case is that of Ahmed Abu Ali who was tortured and forced by Saudi intelligence to state that he had plotted to assassinate then President George W. Bush. After two years in detention in Saudi, he was finally tried by the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia and sentenced to life in prison, even after appeals. There was no witness, no co-conspirator, and no evidence, other than the forced confession. In contrast, Collin Matthew McKenzie-Gude was sentenced to sixty-one months in jail for plotting to assassinate President Obama. Police found chemicals, three semi-automatic rifles, two shotguns, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, as well as detailed assault plans on his computer. What is the difference between this case and the others described above?

We are given to thinking that governmental officials have more information than we do, and that the government is the bastion of justice, liberty, wisdom, honesty. So if the government says that someone is a terrorist, that must be the case, right? In fact, it is not. Consider the war in Iraq. We went in there because the government lied about weapons of mass destruction. And now we’re suffering, having to pay for the war with lives of loved ones as well as financial resources, and now having to deal with more enemies than before. We need to take responsibility into our hands and consider: what evidence is being presented to convict this person? Is the fact that they look and dress differently, or are supposedly associated with an alleged terrorist, enough to convict them?

On a grander level, there needs to be change in how this war on terror is being conducted. Perhaps information squeezed out of a tortured and tired person is not the most reliable evidence. And perhaps, as Bartosiewicz suggested, investigating the nature of these supposed relationships and searching for more concrete evidence will prove more worthwhile and yes, more responsible. It is also vital that this information be made transparent and available to those who will be deciding the futures of these suspects.

Because of this lack of available public knowledge, innocent people’s lives are on the line. Additionally, both innocent and guilty individuals are undergoing cruel and unusual punishment; it is highly unlikely that these methods will prove effective or helpful. What are we risking, along with the lives of innocent individuals and their families? We risk confidence in the US in the global arena: consider the thousands of people who condemned Aafia Siddiqui’s unjust conviction and protested it through public demonstrations in Pakistan, a key ally in the war on terror. But we additionally risk our conscience, our integrity, and our commitment to our ideals – particularly, and perhaps most importantly, our commitment to justice.

Sadia Ahsanuddin is a recent graduate from Harvard College. She has worked in the past as a research assistant with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society and is now interning with UNESCO.


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