A diamond-smuggling Al Qaeda operative or an innocent Pakistani woman whose only crime was her Islamic identity and her headscarf?
Last week, the U.S. government acknowledged that Aafia Siddiqui, an MIT-educated Pakistani neuroscientist, missing since March 2003, was in its custody. But it said Ms Siddiqui, who was wanted by the FBI for her alleged links to Al Qaeda, was arrested only in July this year.
The U.S. acknowledgement came almost exactly a month after Yvonne Ridley, a British journalist who spent 11 days as a Taliban captive in 2001 and has since converted to Islam, held a press conference in Islamabad at which she claimed that an unidentified Pakistani woman was being held in solitary confinement at the U.S.-run detention centre at the Bagram airbase in Afghanistan since 2004.
The journalist said the woman was Bagram’s prisoner number 650, adding that other prisoners had spoken of hearing a woman’s screams in the prison.
“I call her the Grey Lady of Bagram because she is almost a ghost, a spectre whose cries and screams continue to haunt those who heard her,” Ms Ridley said. “We don’t know her identity, we don’t know her state of mind and we don’t know the extent of the abuse or torture she has been subjected to.”
Appearing with Ms Ridley, Imran Khan, the cricketer-turned-politician, said the woman could be Aafia Siddiqui, last seen by her mother in March 2003 as she left home in Karachi with her three children, one of them an infant, to board a plane to Islamabad.
The claim created ripples in Pakistan. As questions arose, the Pakistan Foreign Ministry was emphatic about its information from the U.S. government that it was not holding any Pakistani woman at Bagram. But the issue refused to die down, reappearing again and again as Pakistanis began voicing their concern for the safety of the woman. There were demonstrations in Karachi calling for her release. People protested through letters to the editor columns of newspapers, and more intensely, on blogs. International human rights organisations such as the Amnesty International, on whose list of missing she already was, and the Asian Human Rights Watch, joined in the calls for her release.
Last Thursday, the Federal Bureau of Investigation informed Ms Siddiqui’s brother in Houston that she was in U.S. custody. Earlier this week, she was produced in a New York court, charged with attempting to kill American soldiers. She had a fresh bullet wound and media reports said she looked frail and “ghostly.”
The FBI version is that Ms Siddiqui was arrested by Afghan police in July along with her son — the date is unclear — after they found them loitering outside the compound of the Governor’s house in Ghazni. They questioned her, and on suspicion, checked her bag, in which they allegedly found “suspicious” liquids in glass containers, a bomb-making manual, and some material on New York and its landmarks. She was handed over to the U.S. authorities on July 17.
On July 18 , Ms Siddiqui is said to have fired at American soldiers who were present at the Afghan facility where she was being held, with a rifle that one of the soldiers had left lying around. A soldier fired back, wounding her. Charged in a criminal complaint filed in the Southern District of New York with one count of attempting to kill U.S. officers and employees and one count of assaulting U.S. officers and employees, Ms Siddiqui faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison on each charge if convicted. Significantly, the charges do not mention her alleged Al Qaeda links.
Her lawyer, Elaine Sharp, has questioned the government version, considering that Ms Siddiqui weighs barely 50 kg and appears too frail to be able to lift a rifle. Defence lawyers have also asked under what jurisdiction she was held between July 18 and August 3, when she was extradited to the U.S. and formally arrested. Ms Sharp told The Guardian that her client had told her of being detained “for years” and tortured. From her description of the place where she was detained, Ms Sharp said she was convinced it was Bagram.
The lawyer suggested the upcoming U.S. election had forced the authorities to produce Ms Siddiqui in a court rather than sending her to Guantánamo, like other Al Qaeda suspects.
Ms Siddiqui, who studied at MIT, and later at Brandeis was married to a U.S.-based Pakistani doctor. Her father was a doctor. Her architect brother is based in Houston, and her sister is a Harvard-trained neurologist who now lives in Karachi. Those who knew her as a student said she was religious, but were not able to reconcile the “sweet” young student with the image of an Al Qaeda suspect.
She and her husband moved to Pakistan after 9/11, citing the difficulties of living as Muslims in the U.S., but were divorced soon after their return. By then, she already had three children. Ms Siddiqui went back to the U.S. in December 2002. According to her family, she went back to look for a job. Three months later, she was back in Pakistan with her children, and vanished soon after.
The Pakistani press reported then that she had been taken into custody by intelligence agencies. But reports in the American press in 2004 — around the same time that she appeared on the FBI’s wanted list of seven people with links to Al Qaeda — suggested she had gone underground after the arrest in Karachi of Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of 9/11, who reportedly gave out her name during interrogation.
According to those reports, she was a “high-profile” Al Qaeda operative, who made several trips to the Liberian capital Monrovia in 2001 from where she smuggled out blood diamonds that were used to finance the terror group’s operations.
On Thursday, her sister Fauzia alleged at a press conference in Islamabad that Ms Siddiqui was “abducted” and taken into custody by the U.S. secret services in 2003. Appearing with Iqbal Haider, the co-chairman of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Dr. Fauzia alleged her sister had been repeatedly raped and tortured in custody. She demanded the formation of an independent medical board consisting of U.S. and Pakistani doctors to examine her. She asked U.S. authorities to allow their U.S.-based brother access to Ms Siddiqui.
“My sister’s only crime was that she used to wear a hijab and believe in Allah,” she said. “It is always believed one is innocent until proven guilty, not the other way around.”
Several questions remain unanswered about the circumstances of Ms Siddiqui’s disappearance and her arrest, but chief among them is the whereabouts of her three children, including Ahmed who was arrested along with her.
The Foreign Ministry said on Thursday that while it had sought consular access and medical assistance for Dr. Siddiqui, and would do everything to help her, the Pakistan government was still trying to get to the full facts of the case.
Whatever the truth about Aafia Siddiqui, there are few takers in Pakistan for the FBI version that the 36-year-old MIT-educated neuroscientist was taken into custody by the U.S. only last month. Instead, it is widely suspected, as alleged by her sister, that the mother of three was in U.S. custody all along, another victim of Pakistan’s collaboration in the American “war on terror.”
The issue has once again focused attention and anger on the role of the Musharraf regime in the disappearance of hundreds of people in this country picked up as terror suspects by intelligence agencies and “sold” to the U.S. for a bounty, with no trace yet of most of them. Ms Siddiqui’s case renews the pressure on the new government to trace the remaining missing persons. Forced on the backfoot by the sudden surfacing of Ms Siddiqui, the Pakistan government has said it was committed to bringing back home “all detained Pakistanis” from “all parts of the world.”
Commentators have pointed that the Aafia Siddiqui case also re-underlines the need for an independent judiciary that could enforce the rule of law. The deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary played an active role in prodding the intelligence agencies to track down some of them, threatening to put senior officials of the ISI and other spy organisations in the dock if they failed to do, one reason cited for his removal by President Musharraf.