Ibrahim Sajid Malick: Navigating the Siddiqui Trial

If inconsistencies are the hallmark of truth—an odd truism suggested by U.S. prosecutor David M. Rody during the recently-concluded trial of Aafia Siddiqui—then there was plenty of “truth” to go around on both sides of the proceeding, which concluded February 3 with guilty verdicts on all seven counts of attempted murder and assault.

At first glance, Siddiqui’s story is a perplexing one, albeit one that shows some familiar patterns, at least on the surface. Siddiqui—a 37-year-old Pakistani woman accused by the United States of associating with al Qaeda—began life with all the trappings of upper-middle class achievement. Born to a well-off family in Karachi, she went on to earn a BA from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a PhD in cognitive neuroscience from Brandeis University, and eventually married a Pakistani physician, with whom she had three children.

While Siddiqui’s life looked like a relatively conventional narrative of success prior to 9/11, after the World Trade Center attacks, Siddiqui became increasingly concerned about American hostility toward Muslims, a concern that eventually pushed her and her husband to move their young family back to Karachi. At some point after her post-9/11 return to Pakistan, Siddiqui’s story begins to get murky. FBI officials, having suspected her of working as an al Qaeda operative, placed her on a list of suspected al Qaeda affiliates, which prompted her to disappear into thin air in March 2003. (Within Pakistan, it is commonly believed that she was picked up by the Pakistani intelligence service ISI and later handed over to the CIA. In one of her outbursts throughout the trial, Siddiqui claimed she was kept in a secret prison and that her children were tortured.)

Fast-forward to July 17, 2008.  The story we heard in court was that Aafia Siddiqui was arrested by the Afghan National Police (ANP) in Ghazni, Afghanistan, in possession of a number of incriminating handwritten and pre-printed documents, as well as chemicals that tested positive for sodium cyanide, and a computer thumb drive that contained various electronic documents. According to trial testimony, the Afghan police contacted the U.S. military in Ghazni, which reached out to the FBI to assist in “interviewing and identifying the individual.”

The day after her arrest, on July 18, 2008, a team of United States military personnel and FBI agents traveled to the ANP Compound in Ghazni to conduct an interview with Saddiqui. Allegedly, Siddiqui was left unsecured in the room, behind a partitioned curtain. At some point, she grabbed the chief warrant officer’s M-4 rifle, and fired at members of the U.S. team, which prompted the chief warrant officer to shoot her twice in the abdomen. All of this happened within a span of three minutes, but these three minutes—more than the five years when she was out of public view, allegedly doing al Qaeda’s biding—were the central focus of the trial.

When she is sentenced on May 6, those three minutes may stretch into a lifetime sentence. It should be said that while Saddiqui’s recent trial in New York City managed to captivate both American and Pakistani attention, it had the affect of inflaming Pakistani nationalism, fueled by an anti-American accelerant. The reaction from Pakistan was due, at least in part, to the fact that the trial brought to light so many inconsistencies (“truths,” as Rody might say). For starters, there were discrepancies between eyewitness testimony and the sworn statements that were recorded shortly after the shooting incident on July 18. And then there were discrepancies between the stories of the six eyewitnesses.

Of course, it must be said that Siddiqui added to the mix with her own bout of flip-flopping. The testimony that she gave during the trial was inconsistent with her statements to the FBI in Bagram, Afghanistan. But were Siddiqui’s inconsistencies—and not those of the other witnesses—enough to land her a potential life sentence? Elaine Sharp, one of the four attorneys defending Aafia Siddiqui, told reporters after the verdict was handed down: “There was no forensic evidence, and the witness testimony was divergent, to say the least. This is not a just and right verdict. It is a just and right system, but the juries do make mistakes. And my opinion is that this was a verdict that was based on fear and not fact.”

Sharp went on to say that when Siddiqui was apprehended in Afghanistan on July 17, she was picked up by Pakistani men in two black cars. She was then allegedly drugged, only to wake up later tied to a gurney. According to Ms. Sharp, “she says it could not have been Karachi because the atmosphere was very dry.” This last allegation—that Siddiqui might have been detained and tortured outside the region—only provided additional fuel to the protests that erupted in Pakistan after Siddiqui’s guilty verdicts were announced. Indeed, anti-American sentiments in Pakistan have never been higher. Even “westernized” journalists and intellectuals are upset, joining the media chorus within Pakistan to have Aafia Siddiqui declared “daughter of the nation.”

Pakistanis consider the guilty verdict a travesty of justice. I can hear serious frustration in their voices when I talk to them—young and old, men and women, progressives and conservatives. The subtext of the debate on TV talk shows, editorial pages, and the streets of Pakistan are less about the verdict and more about what was not on trial–particularly the myriad inconsistencies.

But interestingly, for the first time I’ve heard television talk show hosts and journalists, as well as common men and women, also condemning Pakistan’s infamous ISI. “She was kidnapped by the ISI and sold to the Americans,” one newspaper announced. “General Pervez Musharaf must by tried for handing Aafia Siddiqui over to the Americans,” another asserted. Even though Pakistan’s current government, which is dominated by the democratically elected Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), has managed to escape some of the condemnation directed at the former Mushariff regime, Pakistanis are nevertheless frustrated that the new government did not deliver on its promises to secure Siddiqui’s release. (Unfortunately, Federal Interior Minister Rehman Malik had assured the country that Aafia Siddiqui would be released—clearly a promise on which he could not deliver.)

Part of the shock in Pakistan’s streets comes from the fact that the president and prime minister—both PPP members—encouraged an impression that the trial would result in a “not guilty” verdict. When the Pakistani ambassador to Washington D.C. went to New York to meet with Judge Richard Berman, he made statements outside the courtroom, in full-court view of the press, that also raised this false sense of optimism.

In the days ahead, protest against both the United States and Pakistan governments will peak, then eventually loose steam. But Aafia Siddiqui’s story will continue to erode whatever remains of the tenuous trust that currently binds the United States and Pakistan. Indeed, Aafia Siddiqui is already a symbol for Pakistan—a potential Benazir Bhutto. And the longer she stays in American custody, the more powerful a figure she becomes.

Ibrahim Sajid Malick is a veteran Pakistani TV journalist and a syndicated columnist. He blogs at www.ibrahimsajidmalick.com.

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