Mystery Behind Aafia Siddiqi's 'Arrest' Deepens
KARACHI - â€˜'For you it's just another story. If you want the truth go to Ghazni where you will get more than I can ever tell you about my sister," said a distraught Fouzia Siddiqi, speaking with IPS, in a voice breaking with helpless desperation.
Fouzia's younger sister, Aafia Siddiqi, 35, made headlines after the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) announced, on Aug. 4, her "arrest" for attempting to "murder and assault" United States' officers and employees outside the governor's office in Ghazni, Afghanistan, on Jul. 17. No soldiers were reported injured in the incident but Aafia received bullet injuries.
Aafia, a neuroscientist, has since been lodged in a Manhattan jail and the preliminary hearing of her case set for Sep. 3. According to charges framed against her in a New York court, she was, at the time of her arrest, found carrying documents describing how to make explosives and chemical, biological and radiological weapons. She, allegedly, also had a list of landmarks in the U.S. and â€˜'chemical substances'' in sealed containers.
Aafia's resurfacing in Ghazni, five years after her disappearance in the southern port city of Karachi, has shaken the nation. The whereabouts of her three children, who were with her at the time she was kidnapped, remain unclear.
Aafia's story began in March 2003 when this Pakistani woman, then 30, along with her three children, then aged between four months and seven years, became one more victim of numerous disappearances that have been linked to Pakistan's role in the U.S.-led â€˜war-on-terror'. The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has stated that she was initially picked up by an intelligence agency in Pakistan and so the "Pakistan government is also accountable for the crime".
The handing over of Aafia to U.S. authorities has been criticised by Pakistani political leaders. "This is not only a heinous act, but tantamount to selling the country's sovereignty and independence to another nation. It is shameful, utterly humiliating to every Pakistani," said Qazi Hussain Ahmed, leader of the Jamaat -e-Islami party at a press conference here last week.
"It is high time that the present government act like an independent sovereign nation and form its own foreign policy leaving behind the legacy of a discredited military dictator," Ahmed stressed, referring Pervez Musharraf who resigned as president on Monday, amid criticism at home of his pro-U.S. policies.
In 2004, then FBI director Robert Mueller named Aafia among the seven al-Qaeda associates who were being sought in connection with possible terrorist threats to the U.S.
Two weeks prior to Aafia's arrest in Ghazni, a British journalist, Yvonne Ridley, held a press conference in Islamabad, in which she identified Aafia as â€˜Prisoner No. 650', being held in solitary confinement at the detention centre attached to the U.S. air base at Bagram.
Ridley referred to the book â€˜Enemy Combatant' by Moazzam Beg, a former Guantanamo and Bagram prisoner, who had mentioned hearing endless screams, apparently by a woman being tortured, during his detention at Bagram.
"Based on the testimony of detainees held in Bagram in 2003 and 2004, it is clear that there was a woman being held at the base. Whether or not that woman was Aafia Siddiqi is something that, at the moment, cannot be verified," said Asim Qureshi, senior researcher with the rights group Cageprisoners. "However, Dr. Siddiqi has confirmed that she was held in Bagram for years," said Qureshi, responding to queries from IPS.
Fouzia describes her sister, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brandeis University alumna, as a â€˜'fun-loving people's person," who had completed her PhD on "how to improve memory among mentally challenged children''.
"I fear for her life. They probably don't want her to see the light of day,'' said Fouzia. â€˜'If they release her, the truth will come out."
A press release by the HRCP says: "A close look at the picture (in newspapers here) shows the years of torture -- dark circles under her eyes, a broken and badly fixed nose, made up teeth and crumbled lips. It is a picture of a severely dehydrated and unwell person, almost as if on the deathbed. It shows the inhumane brutality of a â€˜civilised' nation by the administration of the country which claims to be civilised."
According to the description given to Fouzia given by her brother, a Houston-based architect, who was allowed to meet Aafia in New York, she was in a â€˜'fragile condition and in severe pain''.
"She was suffering from multiple bullet wounds that had been not been attended to. She came to court in a wheelchair and was suffering from intense abdominal pain for which she was given aspirin, which could only act as poison for her ulcerous condition," Fouzia said. Aafia had earlier informed her lawyer that she believed part of her intestines had been removed.
"My brother told me he saw the perpetrators and the victim together in one room. There was not a shred of compassion, just stony-eyed hate," Fouzia said, tears welling up in her eyes. "She has been condemned even before the trial."
"You know, it would have been better if she had died. I believed she had died and was reconciled to the idea. That way I could move on... and then she re-surfaced, like resurrected from the dead, and that brought some hope. But seeing her like this, it just breaks my heart," continued Fouzia.
Since the announcement of her arrest there have been protests from rights groups across Pakistan.
Amina Janjua, who has been leading a campaign for the recovery of almost 400 missing persons, as chairperson of Defence of the Human Rights, formed after her husband was kidnapped three years ago said she could feel the anguish and utter helplessness of Aafia's family.
"After seeing Aafia's pictures splashed in newspapers across the country and the torture marks she bore for five years, I fear for my husband's life too,'' Janjua said. '' But being a woman, and a mother whose children have been separated from her, I can feel the torment she's going through."
"To say that she (Aafia) had been taken into custody only on Jul. 17, 2008 is a blatant lie, as transparently ugly as any falsehood can be. The insinuation, that she had been hiding herself since 2003, is a travesty of truth, an affront to people's commonsense," stated HRCP.
But Aafia's case seems to be shrouded in mystery and no one is able to piece together the puzzle of her disappearance and reappearance. This has made it difficult for rights groups to bring up her case.
Her sister refuses to divulge information about her husband. And if there is a husband, he has not made any statement so far.
U.S. officials have said that she was married a second time to a nephew of Sep. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammad (KSM). This has been fiercely disputed by the HRCP.
Zaid Hamid, a defence consultant, heading an Islamabad-based think tank â€˜Brasstacks', does not see any mystery about Aafia's case except for the â€˜'criminal betrayals and the deafening silence of our government, media and civil society about all Guantanamo prisoners, especially Pakistanis."
"We consider Dr. Aafia's case an instance of utterly unconscionable and most brutal form of attack on a human being's individual rights," says I.A. Rehman, heading the HRCP.
Asked why the commission was silent all these years, Rehman said: "The HRCP had been calling for her recovery since 2003 and when it went to the Supreme Court in 2007 her name was high on the list. The only mystery was the silence of Aafia's family."
But the silence, explains Hamid, is due to the threats faced by families in similar circumstance. This was confirmed by Fouzia who said "all these years we were told by various government people that she was alright and is well and not to probe too much or harm would come to her''.
In 2005, Arifa, 18, and her sister Habiba, 20, belonging to Karachi, were arrested from the northern Pakistani town of Swat. Their father, Sher Mohammad Baloch, filed a petition in the High Court and the HRCP took up their case. They were released after a year but HRCP was told by their father that their lips were sealed.
The government, under intense pressure from an incensed nation, has sought consular access to Aafia. As a first active step, two diplomats have visited Siddiqi and the media reported that she has requested a copy of the Quran, religiously appropriate food, and assurances of a fair trial.
© 2008 Inter Press Service