By Amelia Casey-Rerhaye, BA Arabic
86 years for a crime with no evidence. That was effectively the sentence given to Aafia Siddiqui in September 2010. It has been 18 years since her older sister, Fouzia, started campaigning for her innocence. In a twitter storm earlier this month, the Aafia Foundation, headed by Fouzia Siddiqui and supporters, demanded that the silence surrounding Dr. Siddiqui’s story be broken. The hashtag #IAmAafia trended on the social media platform in a rush of impassioned solidarity with Siddiqui, aiming to put pressure on American officials to release her.
Along with the twitter storm were announcements of five protests to ‘raise awareness of a great miscarriage of justice, and the innocence and plight of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui’. Two have already taken place in Houston and Fort Worth, Texas, and most recent being on Wednesday 20 October in New York City followed by two more in Boston and Washington DC.
In a press conference in 2004, the US Attorney General John Ashcroft declared Dr Siddiqui as among the ‘seven most wanted’ figures of Al-Qaeda. This came after the FBI declared globally that they wanted Aafia Siddiqui in for questioning, a statement quickly followed by her disappearance. Ashcroft’s declaration also came as poll numbers for the Bush administration plummeted and, along with a Newsweek statement calling Siddiqui ‘the most threatening suspect of the group [Al-Qaeda],’ successfully pushed headlines of the failings of the invasion of Iraq off the news front pages.
The reasoning behind these statements are clear. Following 9/11, US authorities were on high alert for suspicious activity – and it is no secret that they especially targeted the muslim community. Dr. Siddiqui was an impassioned muslim woman, educated and living in the US with her husband, Amjad Kahn, and two children. In early 2002, the couple were questioned by the FBI regarding ‘suspicious’ online purchases. These were supplies for a camping trip which included hunting gear, a bullet proof vest and survival guides. Later that year they moved back to Pakistan and divorced while Dr. Aafia was pregnant with their third child.
Were the claims made in 2004 valid? According to Amjad Khan in an interview with the Guardian in 2009 his ex-wife was ‘so pumped up about the jihad’, one cause that led to their divorce. He outrightly contradicted Siddiqui’s family and accused them of lying about her whereabouts during her disappearance between 2003 and 2008, saying she was actually ‘on the run’. Conversely, Fouzia repeated over the years that her sister had been abducted, raped, and tortured while held in the Bagram detention centre in Afghanistan by US agents.
The contradiction of storylines is enough to give anyone whiplash. The US denies ever having Dr. Siddiqui in their custody before the events of 2008, yet prisoners from Bagram described a haunting female prisoner, widely believed to be Dr. Aafia, who was around for roughly two years. Further investigation by British journalist Yvonne Ridley revealed a figure dubbed ‘the Grey lady of Bagram’ keeping prisoners awake with ‘haunting sobs and piercing screams’. In 2005 a group of male prisoners went on hunger strike for six days allegedly in protest against her treatment.
The clashing accounts make coming to a conclusion near impossible. On one hand she’s a terrorist hiding from authorities and helping Osama bin Laden. On the other she’s an innocent victim of America’s islamophobic obsession with the ‘War on Terror’.
Even less clear is her ‘reappearance’ in 2008 outside a government compound with her son in Ghazni. Found in possession of documents handwritten by her in both English and Urdu that describe details of a terrorist plot on New York City – these were later claimed ot have been written under threat of torture and harm to her children – Dr. Siddiqui was taken into custody by Afghan police. US officials were called in to question her, and then either one of the two following accounts took place. According to the prosecution, Siddiqui grabbed an M-4 rifle from the ground by the soldiers, attempted to shoot them – missed – and was finally shot in the abdomen. However, Siddiqui’s side of the story goes slightly differently: she peeked around the curtain concealing her, then attempted to run for fear of being captured and tortured again by US agencies. A soldier then cried ‘she’s free!’ before shooting, hitting her in the abdomen. The evidence upholding the prosecution was extremely lacking, witnesses couldn’t agree on the number of people in the room nor the amount of shots fired. There was also no forensic evidence of the M-4 rifle having been fired, only evidence of the soldier’s handgun.
There is no denying that Dr. Siddiqui may very well be an extremist. She referred to herself as a martyr in court rather than a prisoner, and she repeatedly cried out antisemitic statements and labelled Jewish people as ‘backstabbing’. So why was she not tried as the terrorist that, five years previously, had been such a threat? As Bruce Hoffman, professor of Security Studies at Georgetown University, succinctly put it: ‘There’s no intelligence data that needs to be introduced, no sources and methods that need to be risked. It’s a good old-fashioned crime; it’s the equivalent of a 1920s gangster with a tommy gun.’
Is this a triumphant story from the West’s ‘War on Terror’ as the US claims, or is it another biased conviction drenched in islamophobia and gaslighting?
The fact that Siddiqui was sentenced to 86 years incarceration on flimsy evidence for an ‘attempted’ crime to, in comparison to, for example, the wealthy white American man Jeffrey Epstein who in his first trial pleaded guilty to one of two counts of procuring girls under 18 for prostitution and was sentenced to 18 months incarceration, says more about how justice can be met out in the USA than can be concluded about Dr. Siddiqui. Is this a triumphant story from the West’s ‘War on Terror’ as the US claims or is it another biased conviction drenched in islamophobia and gaslighting? And considering the attitudes surrounding Muslims and Islam as a religion, could the judge and jury possibly have been unbiased? As the former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark put it: ‘the case of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui is the worst case of individual injustice I have ever witnessed.’
Caption: Dr. Aafia Siddiqui is an innocent Pakistani citizen facing physical and mental torture in America’, Mike Gravel – former US Senator. (Credit: Creative Commons, Muhammed Siddiqui)