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Dr Aafia Siddiqui goes on trial

As Dr Aafia Siddiqui goes on trial in a federal court in New York City her case is unknown to most Americans yet in her native Pakistan the frail neuroscientist, mother of three and reputed al Qa'eda associate, has become a cause célèbre. Last week Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said his government had engaged lawyers to defend her in the court.

As Dr Aafia Siddiqui goes on trial in a federal court in New York City her case is unknown to most Americans yet in her native Pakistan the frail neuroscientist, mother of three and reputed al Qa'eda associate has become a cause célèbre. Last week Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said that he had been in direct communication with Pakistan's mission in the United States for the provision of all possible assistance and cooperation for her release, News International reported. He said that the government had also engaged lawyers to defend her in the court. At a pre-trial hearing last week the defence team rejected the charge of shooting at FBI agents since there were no fingerprints or other forensic evidence that she even picked up the gun, the Associated Press of Pakistan reported. "We're not saying she did it in self-defence. We're not saying it was an accident. We're saying she simply did not do it,' defence attorney Linda Moreno told US District Judge Richard Berman. In The Guardian, Decan Walsh told the story whose plausibility will be weighed in the Manhattan courtroom. "On a hot summer morning 18 months ago a team of four Americans - two FBI agents and two army officers - rolled into Ghazni, a dusty town 50 miles south of Kabul. They had come to interview two unusual prisoners: a woman in a burka and her 11-year-old son, arrested the day before. "Afghan police accused the mysterious pair of being suicide bombers. What interested the Americans, though, was what they were carrying: notes about a 'mass casualty attack' in the US on targets including the Statue of Liberty and a collection of jars and bottles containing 'chemical and gel substances'. "At the town police station the Americans were directed into a room where, unknown to them, the woman was waiting behind a long yellow curtain. One soldier sat down, laying his M-4 rifle by his foot, next to the curtain. Moments later it twitched back. "The woman was standing there, pointing the officer's gun at his head. A translator lunged at her, but too late. She fired twice, shouting 'Get the f*** out of here!' and 'Allahu Akbar!' Nobody was hit. As the translator wrestled with the woman, the second soldier drew his pistol and fired, hitting her in the abdomen. She went down, still kicking and shouting that she wanted 'to kill Americans'. Then she passed out." Dr Siddiqui's trial will focus on the question of what happened in Ghazni in 2008, yet it was several years before then that the American-educated neuroscientist had become a figure of critical interest to the US government. As Walsh wrote: "In May 2004 the US attorney general, John Ashcroft, listed her among the seven 'most wanted' al Qa'eda fugitives. 'Armed and dangerous,' he said, describing the Karachi woman as a terrorist 'facilitator' who was willing to use her education against America. 'Al Qa'eda Mom' ran the headline in the New York Post. "But Siddiqui's family and supporters tell a different story. Instead of plotting attacks, they say, Siddiqui spent the missing five years at the dreaded Bagram detention centre, north of Kabul, where she suffered unspeakable horrors. Yvonne Ridley, the British journalist turned Muslim campaigner, insists she is the 'Grey Lady of Bagram' - a ghostly female detainee who kept prisoners awake 'with her haunting sobs and piercing screams'. In 2005 male prisoners were so agitated by her plight, she says, that they went on hunger strike for six days. "For campaigners such as Ridley, Siddiqui has become emblematic of dark American practices such as abduction, rendition and torture. 'Aafia has iconic status in the Muslim world. People are angry with American imperialism and domination,' she told me. "But every major security agency of the US government - army, FBI, CIA - denies having held her. Last year the US ambassador to Islamabad, Anne Patterson, went even further. She stated that Siddiqui was not in US custody 'at any time' prior to July 2008. Her language was unusually categoric." Amjad Khan, Dr Siddiqui's ex-husband, told The Guardian she had never been to Bagram and that she had spent five years on the run yet closely monitored by Pakistan's Inter Service Intelligence. A senior Pakistani official went one step further and suggested that the non-terrorism related charges she faces may indicate that at some point she may have been "flipped" by by Pakistani or American intelligence. Writing in September 2008, Joanne Mariner, an attorney with Human Rights Watch said: "To date, the whereabouts of the two youngest children - who should now be about 5 and 10 years old - are unknown. But Siddiqui's oldest son, Ahmed, an 11-year-old with American citizenship, is in Afghan custody. "According to an Afghan Interior Ministry official quoted in The Washington Post, Ahmed Siddiqui was held briefly by the Interior Ministry when he was arrested with his mother in July, and then he was transferred to the custody of the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS), the country's intelligence agency. The NDS is notorious for its brutal treatment of detainees. "Under Afghan and international law, Ahmed Siddiqui is too young to be treated as a criminal suspect. Under Afghanistan's Juvenile Code, the minimum age of criminal responsibility is 13. And according to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which monitors the treatment of children globally, a minimum age of criminal responsibility below age 12 is 'not ... internationally acceptable'. "Human Rights Watch has called upon the Afghan authorities to release Ahmed Siddiqui to members of his biological family, who reside in Pakistan, or to a child welfare organisation that can provide proper care until he is reunited with his family. As Human Rights Watch has emphasised, an 11-year-old should never have been transferred to the custody of the NDS." Fauzia Siddiqui, Dr Siddiqui's sister, is seeking action against the Pakistani government for not approaching the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to get Dr Siddiqui recovered and released. At a hearing in Lahore High Court earlier this month, she said that two of the doctor's children were still detained with her while Ahmad, the oldest, had been brought back to Pakistan, Dawn reported. Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported: "Last week, US District Judge Richard Berman had Siddiqui removed from the courtroom for the afternoon after she blurted out to prospective jurors, 'I had nothing to do with 9/11.' "She suggested Israel was behind the attacks, but insisted she's not anti-Semitic. "The judge later said he would give her a reprieve. He's given her permission to exit the courtroom each afternoon for 15 minutes of prayer. " 'She has an open and standing invitation to be here and to behave as everybody else is expected to behave,' he said."

pwoodward@thenational.ae

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