Fauzia, sister of Siddiqi. Credit:Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS
By Zofeen Ebrahim
KARACHI, Pakistan, Feb 11, 2010 (IPS) – Upon hearing that her daughter Aafia Siddiqi had been found guilty of shooting U.S. officers in Afghanistan in 2008, her mother Ismat distributed sweets in her home neighbourhood in this southern Pakistani city.
Talking to the press, her mother pleaded with the nation, where anti-U.S. sentiment is again rising, to refrain from any violent demonstrations. “I would have been happy if Aafia had been acquitted, but I am elated because my daughter has delivered a slap on America‚Äôs face. Today the decline of America begins,” she said.
“It was to celebrate our victory, and to show to the world the level the United States can stoop to,” Fauzia Siddiqi, Aafia‚Äôs sister, told IPS after hearing the verdict by a court in Manhattan, New York, on Feb. 3.
Aafia, a 38-year old Pakistani-born, U.S.-educated neuroscientist, was arrested after attempting to shoot U.S. soldiers in Ghazni, Afghanistan. She had mysteriously appeared there on Jul. 14, 2008 with just her eldest son, Mohammad Ahmed, five years after her disappearance from Karachi, with her three children, on Mar. 30, 2003.
The five years that she remained out of sight remain unaccounted for by her family and the government. No one is willing to talk, although many questions remain unanswered. Nobody knows too about Aafia‚Äôs other two children — a daughter, Mariam, who should be 11 and a son, Suleman, almost 8.
While the U.S. soldiers were unhurt, she was shot and brought wounded to the United States for the trial. Pakistani officials later said they had turned her over to U.S. authorities, and there are allegations, disputed by some, that she is with the al-Qaeda terror network.
Her first public appearance in August 2008 before a New York courtroom, in a wheelchair, sent shockwaves through the country, and many Pakistanis demanded her immediate repatriation. Published photos showed a fragile woman with broken nose, unable to walk, and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said she looked like someone “almost on deathbed”.
“It would have been easier to bring her back then,” said Fauzia, a neurologist.
Two months after Aafia‚Äôs arrest, Ahmed, now 13, was handed over to Pakistani officials by the Afghan authorities. He now lives with his grandmother.
“This is a verdict coming from Israel, not America,” Aafia had exclaimed before being led out of the courtroom. Earlier she had said she would not get a fair trial if there were Jewish people in the jury.
Throughout the trial, she insisted she had never touched the rifle that she supposedly used to fire at the soldiers. Her lawyers argued there was no forensic evidence to prove that she had fired the rifle and that there was no bullets, shell casing or other damage in the room.
“Juries do make mistakes. Juries do go wrong,” Elaine Whitfield Sharpe, one of Aafia‚Äôs lawyers, told the press. “In my opinion, this verdict is based on fear, not on fact,” she said.
The jury had been told that she had been carrying details on how to make explosives and chemical, biological and radiological weapons as well as chemical substances in sealed containers. She had a list of landmarks in the United States, they were told.
“The jurors just heard what they wanted to hear and ignored all the rest,” said senior Pakistani journalist and rights activist Najma Sadeque, who said she was not surprised at the outcome that was so “obviously pre-planned”.
Apart from stoking increased anti-U.S. sentiment in this South Asian country, the Siddiqi case has also given fresh impetus to the issue of missing persons, a euphemism for kidnappings carried out by military spy agencies.
“It has proven what we had been suspecting all along, that our rulers are more loyal to the U.S. than to their people,” said Amena Janjua, whose husband Masood Ahmed Janjua was picked up in July 2005, for alleged links with al-Qaeda, and remains missing to date.
According to Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, 242 people remained missing in 2009. A year after Aafia‚Äôs disappearance, in 2004, Pakistan‚Äôs interior ministry confirmed that she had been handed over to the U.S. authorities.
In his 2006 memoir ‚ÄėIn the Line of Fire’, then president Gen Pervez Musharraf acknowledged turning 369 of the 689 al-Qaeda terror suspects to Washington, for which the country earned “millions of dollars” in bounty money.
The government‚Äôs handing over of citizens to foreign countries has earned the fury of many Pakistanis.
Bushra Gohar, a parliamentarian with the Awami National Party, said: “It shows how we have eroded our sovereignty and our citizens‚Äô rights under some agreements made by dictators. Apparently, the government has paid a large sum of taxpayers‚Äô money for her (Aafia‚Äôs) defence in the U.S., which is rather odd.”
“First she is handed over and then we are spending huge amounts to fight her case,” said Gohar, who strongly supports Aafia‚Äôs extradition.
Unsure about Aafia‚Äôs innocence, Mufti Mohammad Naeem, principal of Binoria University, an Islamic seminary in Karachi, said that the U.S. government should just allow Aafia‚Äôs repatriation because it claims to be the biggest human rights champion. “The U.S. will only grow in stature, and salvage its lost respect, if they release her purely on humanitarian grounds,” said Naeem.
There have been nationwide protests since the verdict was announced. Fauzia said: “There were no politicians or their workers, just common people to show their support for the cause.”
Janjua said they were mobilising people for a “long march” to exert pressure on the government to get Aafia back, adding that the campaign would start by March because Aafia‚Äôs sentence will be announced in May.
Some outside Pakistan also say they are outraged and will stay with the Siddiqi case.
“I will spend my last breath fighting to get real justice delivered to Dr Aafia Siddiqi and her three children,” British journalist Yvonne Ridley told IPS in an email exchange.
Ridley was the first to jog the nation‚Äôs memory of Aafia a few weeks prior to her resurfacing in Afghanistan in July 2008. The outspoken, award-winning British journalist, who was captured by the Taliban in 2001 while on assignment in Afghanistan for the ‚ÄėSunday Express‚Äô, said she would keep investigating the story.
But because of the mystery surrounding her disappearance and her alleged links to al-Qaeda, there are people like Dr Shaaz Mahboob, a Pakistani living in Britain, who remains unconvinced of Aafia‚Äôs innocence.
Mahboob, vice chair of the British Muslims for Secular Democracy and assistant director of public heamanlth in the National Health Services, points to “too many” disturbing coincidences about “questionable traits in her (Aafia‚Äôs) personality”.
He wanted to find answers about “undesirable activities” pursued by her former husbands, one of whom is in the Guantanamo Bay prison. He was also curious about terror attacks in Africa that were linked to Islamic charities she was involved with during her stay in the United States.
“The final nail in the coffin has proven to be the relentless anti-Semitism that she has been displaying throughout the trial,” he said.
“Muslims should reconsider the amount of unconditional support they offer to just about anyone who happens to be taking the name of Islam, be it Dr Siddiqi or extremist groups,” Mahboob warned. “Facts and rational thinking,” rather than rhetoric and sentiments, “must alone decide who is worth supporting and who isn‚Äôt,” he explained.
After the verdict, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani met with the Siddiqi family and assured them that his government would do all it can to get Aafia back.
But Fauzia knows the road to an acquittal for Aafia will not be not easy. “If the U.S. authorities do relent, it would mean accepting their (U.S.) fraud and I wonder if they would do that.” (END)