By Rima Abdelkader
Friday, February 5, 2010
Pakistan-born Aafia Siddiqui was found guilty this week by a federal jury in New York on charges of attempted murder and armed assault. During the controversial trial, prosecutors were accused of using fear-mongering tactics.
NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--In a rare case involving a woman accused of actions related to terrorism, American-trained neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui was found guilty on Feb. 3 by a federal court jury in New York.
The 12-member jury, comprised of eight women and four men, unanimously convicted the 37-year-old mother of three on all seven counts, including attempted murder and armed assault but without premeditation.
In a case marked by controversy and courtroom disruptions, after three days of deliberation the jury rejected Siddiqui's claims that she did not attempt to shoot and kill American interrogators at an Afghan police compound on July 18, 2008.
"The family is trying to deal with this news, and they unfortunately have been subjected to a lot of bad news in the last six years," Tina Foster, Siddiqui's family spokeswoman and a human rights lawyer for the New York-based International Justice Network, told Women's eNews.
Siddiqui, originally from Karachi, Pakistan, moved to the United States for her education in 1990. She attended the University of Houston before transferring to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study biology. She went on to pursue a doctorate in cognitive neuroscience at Brandeis University.
In cross-examination and in closing arguments, Assistant U.S. Attorney David Rody said Siddiqui's education in biology, along with a riflery course she once took at MIT, prepared her for constructing dirty bombs and taught her how to shoot a gun.
Her unknown whereabouts between 2003 and 2008 has been the subject of much debate among human rights organizations and U.S. government officials. The government claims Siddiqui was linked to al-Qaida, while human rights organizations claim she was detained and tortured in U.S.-backed secret prisons.
U.S. Judge Richard M. Berman and the defense counsel however reminded the Manhattan jury that the circumstances of her disappearance were not subject to investigation during trial, nor was anything that occurred before July 18, 2008. Nonetheless, the prosecution was permitted to submit evidence that tied her to al-Qaida, on grounds that such evidence would reveal Siddiqui's motive for picking up a rifle and shooting at Americans.
Prosecutors said Siddiqui was taken into custody at an Afghan police station in the city of Ghazni on July 17, 2008, on suspicion of being a suicide bomber after Afghan officials caught her with paperwork mentioning "cells" and a "mass casualty attack." The papers specifically mentioned New York City landmarks. At the order of Berman, those documents were unavailable for public viewing on the grounds that their depiction of bomb-making formulas posed a threat to public safety.
Defense attorney Linda Moreno told the jury in her closing arguments Feb. 1 that the prosecutors were using fear-mongering tactics to coerce them into choosing a guilty verdict. "Fear has no place in a courtroom, in an American courtroom," she told the jury.
The government and defense team did agree that the incident involving Siddiqui occurred on the second floor of an Afghan police compound, where she was sitting, untied, behind a curtain that divided the room. They disagreed on what transpired afterwards.
A U.S. officer testified that he saw Siddiqui pick up an unsecured rifle and shoot at him and his comrades and that he returned fire. The defense claimed the officer shot Siddiqui because he was startled after she peaked at him from behind the curtain.
Though her interrogators were not wounded, Siddiqui testified that she was shot at several times, including at her abdomen and side. The prosecution held that only one shot was ever fired at her.
"The government has cast Aafia Siddiqui as some sort of Rambo type . . . who lived to tell the tale," said Moreno. She questioned how a 100-pound, 5-foot woman could take on a group of U.S. trained officers.
"Dr. Siddiqui's family is concerned about Aafia's mental health right now and her family is worried if the FBI or the U.S. government has news on her missing children," Foster said.
Siddiqui's eldest son Ahmed is safe with his mother's sister in Pakistan, a family friend who didn't want to be named told Women's eNews. Questions surrounding her two missing children, 12-year old Mariam, a U.S. citizen, and 7-year old Suleiman, a Pakistani citizen, remain. The International Justice Network is asking people with knowledge of their whereabouts to contact them.
The defense provided video evidence immediately before the jury went into deliberation on Feb. 1 of bullet holes in the room where the shots were fired to show that the holes were there before the incident. Moreno said there was no physical evidence establishing that Siddiqui "touched," "let alone fired" the M-4 rifle.
Prosecutor Rody, seen sometimes lifting and showing the M-4 rifle to the jury, said the projectiles from the suspected fired shots might have hit furniture in the room, which may have been removed before FBI Special Agent Gordon Hurley was assigned to investigate the incident six days later.
"Science alone doesn't have all of the answers," the prosecution answered in a rebuttal. They repeated to the jury that Siddiqui had an intention to kill and a motive to do it.
The family's spokesperson said the defense team is going to appeal on grounds that the judge permitted the prosecution to submit evidence that Siddiqui was involved in terrorism and to tell the jury initially that the defendant was a dangerous person, as well as on grounds that increased security surrounding the trial biased the jury's decision.
"It gave the impression of heightened danger . . . that definitely had an impact on the mood in the courtroom," said Foster.
Observers at the Manhattan courtroom said they were bothered by having to pass through two checkpoints, one on the ground floor, another just outside the courtroom, and by having to undergo identification checks in which court security officers would record names and home addresses and ask for signatures.
The defense told Berman at the start of the 12-day trial that these security measures were "highly prejudicial." Berman promised to look into the matter and later justified the measures on the grounds that the Martha Stewart trial involved the same procedures.
Comrade Shahid, the secretary general of the Pakistan USA Freedom Forum, a group of Pakistani immigrants in New York advocating for human rights, said the guilty verdict would surely inspire mass protests around the world, and bombings, not just in Pakistan. Siddiqui, however, has asked through one of her defense attorneys that no protests occur. The U.S. verdict has already sparked protests in Pakistan.
Siddiqui is scheduled to be sentenced on May 6, 2010, and she could face up to life in prison.
Rima Abdelkader is a multimedia journalist in New York City who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @rimakader on Twitter. You can catch her recent interview with Christiane Amanpour on the set of "Amanpour" for CUNY TV on Twitter Video here: http://www.twitvid.com/E4DAE.