x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

The curious case of Aafia Siddiqui

Contradicting the official story of the woman the US press called 'Lady al Qa'eda', a leaked Pakistani -intelligence document sent Timur Moon on a search for the truth behind a controversial conviction.

Protesters burn a US flag in Quetta, in the Pakistani province of Balochistan, after Siddiqui’s conviction by a New York court.
Protesters burn a US flag in Quetta, in the Pakistani province of Balochistan, after Siddiqui’s conviction by a New York court.

Two months ago I was forwarded a statement apparently given by a 13-year-old boy, an American citizen, to Pakistani intelligence services. In 2003, the statement claimed, secret police snatched the boy out of a car in Karachi. “They forced us to stop and then forced us out with their weapons, and to get in the other car… I was screaming. My mother was also screaming. We were all screaming.”

The boy would have been six. His mother, younger sister and baby brother were separated and forced at gunpoint into other vehicles, he said. A cloth impregnated “with some substance” was held to his face and he passed out to awake in an interrogation chamber, surrounded by agents speaking “English and Urdu and Pashto… FBI people were asking me my name and address, but I had no courage to ask who they were.” Between interviews the boy said he was given injections. “This will make you bigger,” he said he was told.

Then, rather oddly, the statement skips forward several years. Agents tell the boy his younger brother is dead. They move the boy from his prison and he meets the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, and a Pakistani ambassador. He is taken to Pakistan. A US ambassador gives the boy "his visiting card and some books and biscuits". Then the boy goes home to his aunt's house.

The boy's name is Muhammad Ahmad Khan, known as Ahmad. He went missing for five years. His wider family wouldn't hear from him until 2008 when he was released from jail in Afghanistan, after the personal intervention of Karzai, it was said.

What was he doing in jail in the first place? He had been found wandering with his mother in Ghazni in Afghanistan earlier that year. The pair were arrested as they loitered outside the governor's compound. The boy was released later, but the mother, whose bag was reported to have contained a small vial of cyanide, a biological weapons manual and a handwritten list of targets in New York, was kept in custody.

The mother's name is Aafia Siddiqui, better known to readers of the New York Post as "Lady al Qa'eda" and "Terror Mom". An MIT-educated neuroscientist, she is said to be married (though she denies it) to Ammar al Baluchi, an alleged September 11 conspirator now held at Guantanamo Bay.

For a time Siddiqui was seventh on the FBI's most-wanted list. And indeed, they got their woman in the end. But the question remains: what were she and her son doing during those five years before her arrest? The US government says she was in hiding. She has claimed that she was held in secret Pakistani detention centres for interrogation by Americans. This version of events would seem to be corroborated by the statement from her son that I received, and it's the line that Siddiqui's defence took at a bizarrely tangential trial in New York.

Siddiqui was charged with attempting to shoot US soldiers while in Afghan custody in 2008 - after her arrest. US agents went to question her. At this point, it is claimed that she leapt out from behind a curtain, grabbed a rifle and began firing at them. (YouTube footage of Siddiqui, shot at the police station the day before depicts a scene chaotic enough that some such scuffle seems possible.) In the melée, Siddiqui was shot and wounded. Then she was airlifted to stand trial in New York.

Her defence claimed, on what appear to be quite strong grounds, that she never actually fired the gun and that she had been driven mad by five years in the US's "dark-side" interrogation facilities. The prosecution denied that any such detention took place and insisted that she did fire the gun. In September, Siddiqui was sentenced to 86 years in jail.

Ahmad's statement was never heard in evidence. It is, however, the only eyewitness account that has emerged about what happened to his mother. His sister, Mariam, 12, turned up outside the family home in Karachi after having gone missing for seven years. She has yet to speak about the matter.

The statement raises as many question as it purports to answer, and has so far proved difficult to authenticate. It was leaked to the London-based human rights group Cageprisoners, who are campaigning for Siddiqui's release. It bears the signature of Shahid Qureshi (presumably the intelligence official who took the statement), and is dated January 13, 2010 - 18 months after Ahmad's release.

It was forwarded to me by a contact at Cageprisoners, a person with whom I had worked as a reporter in Pakistan. But I was uneasy about Cageprisoners' reliability. I couldn't vouch for the organisation's credibility and was reluctant to take its word for Ahmad's claims.

It was unclear whether Cageprisoners had its own agenda. Then again, everyone in the case has their own agenda.

The Pakistan government refuses to comment on Siddiqui's whereabouts between 2003 and 2008, though it is backing efforts for her release, and has spent $2 million on her legal fees. "The issue has been raised at the highest levels," said Abdul Basit, a foreign office spokesman. "We are aware of Aafia Siddiqui's son's claims but due to the sensitivity of the case, we cannot comment on this, or on anything relating to her whereabouts between 2003 and 2008. We are doing all we can to secure her repatriation."

The Afghan government refuses to confirm Ahmad's claims. "This is a delicate issue concerning a Pakistani-US citizen. We cannot comment," said Hameed Elmi, a spokesman for Karzai.

The family is also staying silent, but in an e-mail forwarded to me by Cageprisoners, Aafia's sister Fowzia Siddiqui confirmed her belief that Ahmad and Mariam were "snatched" in 2003. It is rumoured in the Pakistani press that they have been sworn to secrecy by the authorities, on pain of darker threats.

Yet parts of Ahmad's story are confirmed by the US State Department. "A US consular official visited a US citizen minor apprehended by Afghan authorities… on July 17, 2008," it said. "The visit took place in Kabul."

Yusill Scribner, a spokeswoman for the US Attorney's office in Manhattan, refused on-the-record comment, referring me to court records that make gripping reading, but hardly clear up the mystery.

"I believe this woman was kidnapped with her children in March 2003, and has been held in custody by either Pakistani intelligence or the American government, in any of its dark-side areas," said Elizabeth Fink, Siddiqui's lawyer during a 2008 arraignment hearing. "She was released in July and set up for this confrontation."

These repeated allusions to the "dark side" are unsettling. Elsewhere in the trial transcript Fink remarks enigmatically: "I also know, having watched vice president Cheney, that the dark side doesn't tell the light side what it's doing."

David Raskin, prosecuting, insisted that there was no evidence - "not a shred" - that Siddiqui was abducted. "The more plausible inference is she went into hiding," he said. On his account, Siddiqui went underground in March 2003 after a series of al Qa'eda suspects were arrested, including the alleged September 11 conspirator Ammar al Baluchi. A persistent problem throughout the trial is that a good deal of salient evidence remains secret. "An awful lot of it is from intelligence agencies [and] is classified," Mr Raskin admitted. This raises the question of what Siddiqui was really wanted for. At various times she had been investigated in connection with a $19m deal for Liberian blood diamonds and with a $10,000 purchase of night-vision equipment. And yet the only offence she was charged with was committed after her arrest.

The "missing years" are central to the defence, who argued that the trauma of Siddiqui's experience left her unfit to stand trial. By then, she was reporting visitations of a dark angel in her cell, children appearing at night, even her son's dog. Thomas Kucharski, a psychiatrist retained by the defence, conceded that it was "difficult to parse out where the delusion begins and where her political ideology stops". But prosecution psychiatrists said she fitted the profile for malingering, "crowding the canvas" by feigning mental illness.

It would seem like a self-defeating strategy. As Dr Kucharski pointed out, "the finding of incompetence would only lead to an attempt to restore her to sanity". Had Siddiqui been found unfit for trial, she would have been held indefinitely under section and very probably given antipsychotic drugs in an attempt to rehabilitate her. Hardly an inviting prospect for a doctor of neuroscience.

Besides, the case for the prosecution looked shaky, both then and now. Siddiqui campaigners are confident the verdict will be found unsafe, and an appeal is looking likely. Members of Siddiqui's defence point to video evidence shot at the police station in Ghazni. Pock marks in the wall were presented as evidence of bullet holes resulting from Siddiqui's murder attempt. But the marks were there before the incident, said Elaine Sharp, another member of Siddiqui's defence team. In fact, she said, the film was made the day before the shooting was supposed to have taken place. Yet the defence wasn't allowed to present its case.

"We were only able to dispute the video evidence at the last minute, after government witnesses testified," said Sharp. "We did not have this to cross-examine them." Material subsequently published on the Wikileaks website casts further doubt on the verdict. "Recent Wikileaks show an emergency call was made regarding the incident," saidSharp. "The woman is said to pick up and point the gun, but not shoot." That would mean 86 years just for picking up a gun.

In the context of last week's deluge ofinformation relating to deaths in the Iraq conflict, Siddiqui's case might seem like a drop in the ocean. But it dramatises a dilemma at the heart of US government. Barack Obama recently reneged on a pledge to publish much of this classified material. Perhaps this case reveals something of what lay behind that decision.

The suspicion remains that Siddiqui's imprisonment was secured on little more than a technicality, and in the most cynical manner. Should the conviction be overturned the US government would have lost out on all counts. And its fears as to Siddiqui's terrorist links may yet prove to have been well-founded. But if she stays in jail on dubious charges, Siddiqui's case will seem to many like evidence that, in the US government, the dark side is prevailing.