Pakistan's prime minister said yesterday he will campaign for the release of a female scientist convicted of attempting to kill US interrogators in Afghanistan as the verdict sparked country-wide protests.
Police fired tear gas to disperse about 400 rock-throwing protesters trying to march to the US consulate in the country's largest city, Karachi, in one of several demonstrations against the 86-year sentence given to Aafia Siddiqui by a New York court on Thursday.
The prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, said he had lobbied American officials for Siddiqui's release to "improve the US image in Pakistan". "We all are united, and we want the daughter of the nation to come back to Pakistan," he told parliament, which unanimously adopted a resolution demanding Siddiqui's repatriation. "I fought for her, my lawyer fought for her and now I will take up this matter on a political level," he said.
Mr Gilani's comments appeared to be an attempt to manage public anger over the case of the US-trained scientist and mother of three, which has struck a chord among Islamist groups and ordinary Pakistanis, many of whom are convinced of her innocence. Siddiqui, 38, who as a student excelled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was found guilty of grabbing a rifle at an Afghan police station where she was being interrogated in July 2008 and of trying to shoot US servicemen.
Prosecutors said she picked up the weapon and opened fire on US servicemen and FBI representatives trying to take her into detention. She missed and in a struggle was herself shot by one of the US soldiers. Defence lawyers argued there was no physical evidence, such as finger prints or gunpowder traces, to show Siddiqui even grabbed the rifle. Siddiqui's lawyers have said they will appeal against the sentence.
In a statement at her sentencing Thursday, Siddiqui said that she forgave the soldier who shot her as well as the judge, according to a report in The New York Times. "I am a Muslim, but I do love America, too," the paper reported her as saying. "I do not want any bloodshed," she added. "I really want to make peace and end the wars." Most of the protesters in Pakistan were from Islamist political parties opposed to the government. They criticised the country's leaders for failing to somehow secure her freedom.
One of the largest protests was in the north-western city of Peshawar, where around 8,000 people gathered. In Islamabad, 100 people attempting to reach the US Embassy scuffled with police near a five-star hotel, witnesses said. The protesters shouted: "Down with America! Jihad, Jihad!" Interior minister Rehman Malik said the government would petition the US administration to review the sentence on a "humanitarian basis" and request that Siddiqui be handed over to Pakistan and dealt with under Pakistani law.
Asked under what circumstances Siddiqui could return home, the foreign ministry said the US president, Barack Obama ,could pardon her, or an agreement could be reached for her to serve at least part of her sentence in Pakistan. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan expressed "dismay" over the "unusually harsh sentence" and called on Islamabad and Washington to negotiate urgently for her repatriation on humanitarian grounds.
"We fear that the verdict will be misunderstood in Pakistan and bring relations between the two allies in the war on terror under increased strain," said its chairman Mehdi Hasan. Siddiqui's family vowed to launch a "movement" to get her released from jail, with sister Fowzia telling reporters she was confident that the entire country would agitate to bring her home. "I was alone... when I started the campaign to release my sister, but from now on it will be the Aafia movement as the whole nation is with me," she said.
Lawyers went on strike in Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province, to protest against what Rana Mohammad Akram Khan, a member of the bar council called an "inhuman sentence". Dozens of lawyers and activists blocked traffic in the central city of Multan yesterday, shouting "Down with America" and setting fire to an effigy of Mr Obama and former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf, an AFP reporter said.
The National with additional reporting by the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse