A Pakistani Woman named Aafia Siddiqui was abducted from a taxi in Karachi, Pakistan along with her 3 children 12 years ago on March 30, 2003. At the time she was vulnerable, recently divorced from an abusive husband; living with her mother; her father had just died of a heart attack. The youngest child was an infant. Following her abduction, Aafia Siddiqui and her children disappeared from view for 5 years. She spent those years in US Black Site prisons in Afghanistan and Pakistan. One can only imagine the torment she suffered there, in a system created to enable the torture and abuse of terrorism suspects. She was a woman alone. They took her children, and threatened them when personal torture was not enough to gain her acquiescence.
They say other women came and went from Bagram and the secret prisons in Afghanistan, but Aafia Siddiqui is the only one whose story is known. This is true in part because she had lived, studied and worked in the United States for more than a decade, but even more so because of the devoted persistence of her family, he mother Ismet, and sister Fowzia, who never for one moment ceased their efforts to find her and bring her home. Using their standing as an upper middle class family in Karachi, a conservative Muslim family, well educated, known for their involvement in various aspects of civil society during, the Siddiqui women engaged with the government at all levels, engaged the press to publicize Aafia’s disappearance and to investigate her whereabouts and the circumstances of her disappearance.
Ismet says that shortly after her daughter’s disappearance, a man came to her door and threatened her. He told her to drop the search for her missing daughter or ‘else’. The two women, Ismet and Fowzia, were convinced that Aafia and her children had been detained by either Pakistani Intelligence (ISI) or the CIA. This is not surprising because Pakistani citizens were frequently disappeared during that period, mostly by the Pakistani Secret Police and Intelligence forces complicit with the American CIA and FBI who were casting a broad net to fish for ‘terrorists’ after 9/11/2001. Thousands were abducted and imprisoned for long or short periods of time. A few eventually landed in Guantanamo, but who knows what happened to the rest?. Many never returned. Thousands of Muslim immigrants were rounded up and questioned here in the United States as well. Many of them were tortured. Many were held for months and years with no accessto legal aid or their families. Many were eventually deported despite having committed no crime.
No, Aafia Siddiqui wasn’t the only person rendered during the first years of the Global War on Terror, nor was she the only Pakistani disappeared under the Musharraf regime. We now know that thousands were rendered from the streets of Pakistan and around the globe during the first years following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. We know that torture was ubiquitous during that period, while brutal violence against civilians characterized the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. What is extraordinary about Aafia Siddiqui’s case is that she was a woman, and was taken with her children. Also somewhat unusual is the fact that she had spent many years in the US where she went to college and eventually obtained a PhD from Brandeis, married a Pakistani Doctor and had 2 children; and worked for various charities generally leading a conscientious life of good will. She sent Qurans to prisoners, and taught children at a Mosque in an impoverished city neighborhood.
But after 9/11 it all fell apart. She and her husband were not abducted, but they were interrogated. A young Saudi the government was pursuing had stayed for a while in their apartment building. Her husband had used his credit card to buy night vision goggles, he said for hunting. The marriage was becoming increasingly stressed and at times, violent. Aafia had a long scar on her cheek from a cut caused by a baby bottle her husband admitted to throwing at her. Aafia took her children and returned to her parents’ home in Karachi. She was pregnant with their third child when her husband divorced her and remarried. We are told she seemed nervous and agitated during this period. Who wouldn’t be nervous and agitated under those circumstances? And then, one day she set out for a family visit with her uncle, got in the taxi with her children, and disappeared.
In July of 2008, Aafia Siddiqui arrived in Manhattan a week after abdominal surgery to remove a couple of bullets from her intestines, and was brought directly into a courtroom in her wheelchair for arraignment on charges of attacking US military personnel in Afghanistan. After a highly publicized trial during which the press consistently referred to her as ‘Lady al Qaeda’, she was sentenced to 86 years in prison and sent to Carswell Medical Center, a high security federal prison in Texas, where she remains to this day, so we are told.
At the trial, no physical evidence was presented by the prosecution. There was none. Basic questions related to context were neither asked nor answered. Where was Aafia Siddiqui between the time of her disappearance 5 years earlier, and her encounter with the soldiers in Ghazni, Afghanistan? Why wasn’t she believed when she said she had been rendered and tortured? Why did the Pakistani Government allow her to be extradited from Afghanistan, then pay a small fortune for lawyers for her, lawyers that she did not want or trust because, whatever their qualifications, they had been selected and paid for by the Pakistani government? Why, when a fragile woman, who was obviously physically and mentally broken, said that she had been tortured, did no one investigate her story?
Between 2003 and 2008, US officials repeatedly denied having Aafia Siddiqui in custody. They insisted that she was not in the system anywhere. But, when she showed up in 2008, they had a story all ready to tell about her involvement with al Qaeda, conferring with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and some of his associates. They actually said she was married to his nephew Ammar al Baluchi, a charge her family absolutely denies. She was only recently divorced, and had just birthed a child when she disappeared. The specific accusation against Siddiqui was that she had got a mailbox in Maryland for Majid Khan, a young man who had associated with Khalid Sheikh Muhammed in Karachi He had allowed his visa to lapse while he was visiting family in Karachi, and needed a US mailbox address to reapply for it so he could return to the US. . Khan was accused of plotting to commit terrorist attacks on returning to the USA.
But this isn’t the crime Aafia Siddiqui was tried for, just a story leaked to the press. Majid Khan was detained a few weeks before Aafia Siddiqui and her children were. Like her, he had lived in the United States for some years and had attended high school here. Raised in a middle class suburb of Baltimore, he was restless and unable to decide what to do with his life, so he went to Karachi to visit the extended family and married there. Members of his family were initially detained with him, then later released. According to his brother, Majid Khan was tortured and beaten during this period, and coerced into making unreliable and false confessions
Although he may have known KSM and his nephew, Khan was never proven to do anything other than talk and spin stories. After touring the black sites and being tortured for a couple of years, Khan landed in Guantanamo where he apparently continued talking and spinning stories. Majid Khan was eventually able to arrange a plea deal for early release from Guantanamo in 2012 in exchange for testimony against Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, Ammar Al Baluchi and others. Perhaps Siddiqui did help Majid Khan with his immigration problem. He was a kid who needed help. That is an immigration violation that might keep her from returning to the US. But we don’t even know for sure that she even did that. We do know that Khan told a lot of stories in return for a plea deal in 2012 that capped his sentence at 19 years.
The government, however, claimed that Aafia Siddiqui spent the 5 years she was missing in a terrorist cell developing chemical and biological weapons. She was a scientist, after all, with a PhD. When she was arrested in Pakistan, there were some chemicals in her bag along with some recipes for biological and chemical weapons written in her handwriting and a picture of the statue of liberty, an odd choice for someone who had lived many years in Boston area and Texas before that. These items were brought into evidence. Again, when Aafia Siddiqui explained that she wasn’t that kind of scientist, that she was an educator, she was ignored. Her PhD was in neuroscience as it pertains to learning capabilities. This is a matter of public record at Brandeis University. She was Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, but neither a physician, a chemist nor even a biologist except in a narrow tangential sense. She said she wrote in the documents what she was told to write by men who threatened to harm her children if she did not do as they wished.
Aafia Siddiqui suffered from severe PTSD which made it difficult for her to present a consistently calm and pleasant demeanor during trial. She told the court she had been tortured during the time she was missing, but this testimony was dismissed as untrue and irrelevant. The government, of course, had denied it. She didn’t want the highly paid lawyers hired on her behalf by the Pakistani government because she didn’t trust the motivation of the Pakistani government, and she didn’t like the way they were building her case. But the judge chose to ignore her protest and allowed those lawyers to continue. Judge Berman was privately informed of the details the US held against Siddiqui. The story was apparently leaked to the press as well. But it wasn’t told in open court where she might have refuted it. The jury convicted despite the lack of physical evidence on charges normally bringing a sentence of around 15 years. They did not convict on the charge of premeditation, but Judge Berman added a ‘terrorism’ enhancement to her verdict, and sentenced Aafia Siddiqui to 86 years in a federal prison.
Today, Aafia Siddiqui remains in the psychiatric division of Carswell, seven years into her 86 year sentence. She had a hard time early on, and apparently was beaten at one point, by the guards? Other inmates? That we don’t know. We do know she was in solitary after that. She hasn’t been allowed to receive mail.. I, myself, have sent her many letters, all returned. Early on they came back unopened, marked ‘undeliverable’. When I called the prison to inquire whether I had the wrong address, the person who answered went off to ask advice on what to tell me. He said, when he returned to the phone, that she refused her mail. A few months later when I was in jail myself (for direct action protest at the gate of Hancock AFB) I received a letter from my attorney, and realized that they have to open your mail and inspect it before offering it to you. After I called again to question this issue, my letters started coming back opened.
Aafia Siddiqui hasn’t spoken to her family in more than a year. She has a brother, also in Texas, but he has not been able to see her. No one has had contact with her for over a year now. The last time she was given a chance to talk to her family, to her mother and sister, and the 2 children returned to them after she was imprisoned in the US, was following a national press conference outside the Pakistani Embassy in Washington DC and a well-publicized protest outside Carswell Prison. At the time, Fowzia asked her why she was refusing her mail, and she replied ‘What mail?”
Last year Robert Boyle, a new attorney hired by the family, submitted a motion to vacate to Judge Berrman, requesting that he throw out the verdict because Aafia’s repeated requests for an adjournment of the proceedings so she could find an acceptable attorney were ignored. The motion lays out a detailed argument that Siddiqui’s request was sane and reasonable, and described the potential bias of the Pakistani government and the ways in which their choice of attorneys, even well-known human rights lawyers, might not have been in her best interest. Judge Berman called the lawyers in a few days later and said that Aafia Siddiqui had written a letter to him, asking that the motion be dismissed, and that he was therefore required to dismiss it. He went on to say that he had, in any case, no intention of granting the motion.
Since then, another six months have passed with no word to anyone from Aafia Siddiqui. It’s true she is likely depressed. Is she sick? Is she being heavily medicated? Is she alive? An appeal that had earlier been rejected which focused on procedural issues. This motion that Judge Berman says she asked to have dismissed very directly mirrored her own concerns at the time of the trial. It’s true; she may have done this out of depression or despair. But if she was too disturbed for the Judge to support her initial request in the court room, why was her current request honored without a hearing?
Aafia Siddiqui said that she had been tortured and raped. Why her assertion was dismissed as a fabrication with no investigation, and why were any investigations into her claims treated as collateral conspiracy theories? How did she neatly fall into the hands of US soldiers just as the family felt their sources were near locating her? Why did the Pakistani Government allow her to be extradited if they thought she was innocent? Where are Aafia Siddiqui now and what is her status?
The fact is that Aafia Siddiqui’s story is not so different than many of the other Pakistani, Afghan and Arab men swept up after 9/11. Why is it so unbelievable? All of the evidence is in her favor except for the ‘secret’ evidence and the fact that the US denies her assertions. Would we expect anything different from them? We have heard the stories of others illegally swept up in the rendition program. But maybe we don’t want to believe they would do that to a woman. We’ve heard a lot of stories about horrors visited on women by US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Vietnam, but maybe we don’t want to think that might happen to a vulnerable middle class housewife with a PhD in Education. What would they do to cover up committing these atrocities against this kind, well educated, English speaking woman who had spent nearly half her life in the US when she was detained? And to cover up the cover up?