Murky waters surrounding American Justice

Farah Jassat 14 March 2010

Dr Aafia Siddqui is not just a graduate from MIT and a mother of three children who has recently been convicted in America for sixty years in prison. She is a symbol of the War on Terror. For some, she represents Lady al-Qaeda, an armed and dangerous woman working at the behest of Osama bin Laden. For others, she personifies the murky web of deceit, injustice and inconsistency that surrounds some of America’s strategies in their campaign against Terror.

In July 2008, Aafia Siddiqui was arrested in the Afghan town of Ghazni by local police because she was allegedly carrying notes regarding mass terror attacks and New York landmarks as well as jars of chemical substances in her handbag. However, her recent conviction in Manhattan was not regarding this apparent threat to national security. Her charges do not even mention terrorism. Rather, it was to do with an incident that took place the next day in the police compound where the FBI was planning to question her.

The prosecution argues that four men entered a room and were unaware of her being hidden behind a curtain. One soldier sat down, putting his M-4 rifle on the floor, not too far from the curtain. The gun was then pulled back and picked up by the hidden lady who attempted to shoot the officer. None of the officers were injured, although fire was returned and Aafia Siddiqui was shot in the process. Her defence lawyer argued that there was no physical evidence that she had shot the rifle (remnants of bullets, shell casing, debris etc) and eyewitness reports contradicted each other. The case of Aafia Siddiqui is bizarre to say the least. If she was one of the “most wanted” al-Qaeda fugitives, as was made out by US attorney general, John Ashcroft, then why was she not being charged on that basis? And since the recent trial did not charge her on terrorist-related offences, then why was the whole structure of the trial inferring her guilt instead of the expected presumption of innocence? Before she even left the court room, the unusually high level of security and chosen line of questioning which didn’t always relate to the specific case at hand painted her in a negative light.

Cageprisoners, a UK-based human rights group rejected the verdict, highlighting the absence of context from the trial as evidence regarding Siddiqui’s whereabouts prior to arrest in 2008 was not allowed. A spokesman for the group said there was a “blanket refusal to look at the facts of her detention prior to 2008” and that “this verdict will only confirm what many already believe, that it is impossible for Muslim terrorism suspects to receive a fair trial in the US.”

Indeed, the water becomes murkier when you realise that Aafia Siddiqui was missing for five years before 2008. Some say she was on the run, but Aafia’s family and supporters claim she had been held in the dreaded Bagram detention centre, where she suffered unthinkable horrors. British journalist, Yvonne Ridley, famously described her as the “Grey Lady of Bagram”: the ghostly female prisoner who kept others awake with her “haunting sobs and piercing screams”. Indeed, six human rights groups, including Amnesty International have listed her as a possible “secret detainee”. Her family argues that she was abducted with her three young children in 2003, and until now the whereabouts of two of her children are still tragically unknown. Some argue that her only crime has been guilt by association as her second husband, Ammar alBaluchi was involved in helping the 9/11 hijackers.

This case has received relatively poor scrutiny and coverage in the Western media, but has caused uproar in Aafia’s home country of Pakistan. The Pakistani government has financially assisted the defence case and many eminent jurists from the Pakistan Bar Association have rejected the verdict, regarding it as prejudicially based on fear, rather than fact and evidence. Popular discontent with the case has resulted in the masses rallying behind the banner of Aafia’s plight.

Although we may not share the nationalist sentiments of the Pakistani people, we can share their scepticism over the case. It seems to be a flawed justice when an apparently high-level terror suspect is not charged over terrorist-related offences. Furthermore, to disallow context from a court trial can dangerously narrow the understanding that the jury has of a case. A Pakistani official offers a tantalising explanation: “Maybe the Americans have no charges against her. Maybe they don’t want to compromise their sources of information. Or maybe they don’t want to put that person out in the world again.” It seems that we will never really find out what happened in the five years in which she was missing or understand the discrepancies in her case. Nevertheless, we should not cease voicing our concerns.

Farah Jassat