Yvonne Ridley’s U.S. Tour – Journal Notes
Yvonne Ridley's Diary on her Justice for Aafia U.S. Tour
Day 1 – Brooklyn, New York
What an emotional start to our tour with the Muslim Legal Fund of America.
Dr. Aafia Siddiqui's brother Muhammad from Texas joined me on a platform with Cageprisoner's Saghir Hussein at Masjid At-Taqwa in Brooklyn, New York.
The room fell completely silent as Muhammad began talking about the day he arrived home to find a simple, brown cardboard box on his doorstep with his sister's name printed neatly on one side.
He talked about the significance of the box, what it could mean, how he feared its contents and how it took days to summon up the courage to open it.
As he talked about its contents – each book, handwritten note, and card held some significance – I could see the eyes of brothers present becoming glassy while others swallowed hard in a desperate bid to contain their emotion.
The masjid was fully to capacity on Friday evening with brothers and sisters who wanted to know what they could do for Aafia.
As Muhammad concluded his talk we discovered the box contained private papers and documents bundled carelessly together from the secure medical centre where Aafia had been assessed for her mental stability and capability to stand trial.
Following the assessment, and with no notice at all, Aafia was moved from the centre near her brother's home in Texas back to the New York detention facility and the box containing her private paraphernalia, was sent to Muhammad.
I also talked to those gathered at Imam Siraj Wahhaj's Masjid and I told them about the brutal strip searches she endures which are tantamount to rape. If Aafia struggles she is forcibly held down by male guards while female guards tear away at her clothes to carry out the cavity searches.
This procedure happens every time she meets with her legal team. It is brutal, physical, primitive and shocking that any woman – regardless of her faith, culture, nationality – has to go through this.
The fact that Aafia is a Muslim woman should bring shame on all of us that this is happening with our knowledge.
I am appealing to every single one of you to do what you can to raise this with your politicians, imams and other people of influence. The rape of Aafia Siddiqui has to stop, her torment must come to an end and what we want is justice.
While I know all of you will do your best for Aafia, I told the congregation at Masjid At-Taqwa that they are the most important group of helpers because of their close proximity to the New York Court. I asked them to turn out in force and show their support for Aafia every time the Judge convenes a hearing for Aafiya.
I wonder if Judge Richard Birman is beginning to feel the pressure because he appears to be indulging in a rather silly game of cat and mouse by constantly moving the court dates and times around making it very difficult to organise and sustain a large Muslim presence in the court for the hearings.
However, that will not deter the brothers and sisters who use the nearby masjid – they know the eyes of the Muslim world are focussed on the court case in New York and they know that we must maintain a presence of support for Aafia.
There was to be a hearing on October 28 but now it appears the judge has cancelled that date. When it is reconvened be sure that representatives of the new York muslim community will be present.
From Brooklyn I flew to Chicago to attend a gathering of one of the largest Pakistan communities in the Windy City. By strange coincidence retired General Pervez Musharraf was also in town on a speaking tour.
It was unnerving talking about Aafia at the Islamic Foundation in Villa Park when the man accused of delivering her into the hands of the Americans was just down the road addressing an entirely different sort of audience.
Tomorrow I am flying back to New York and heading for Coney Island at the Ziafat Restaurant … a different location and a new audience but the message is the same. All of us must do whatever we can to make sure Aafia gets the justice she deserves.
Our message is simple: Bring Aafia Back Home, NOW!
For more information see the website of the Muslim Legal Fund of America: www.mlfausa.org
Day 2 – Coney Island
What a small world we live in.
Last night as I addressed members of the Pakistan community in Coney Island, retired general Pervez Musharraf was hosting a private dinner for a select group of his wealthy supporters.
We were both raising funds – he, allegedly, to launch a new party and a brand new political career while I was hoping to raise funds for Dr Aafia Siddiqui and other Muslims in need of legal support.
With some mild amusement I reflected one event was for a fugitive from justice while the other was for a victim of injustice, adding with further irony that Aafia is where she is today because of General Musharraf.
By his own admission in his autobiography In The Line of Fire, he reveals in details how his administration was responsible for selling hundreds of Muslims to the Americans for millions of dollars.
Allowing him to return to Pakistan to revive his political ambitions would be like inviting Herod to open a childrens' nursery in Pindi!
I'm not sure who turned up to the other event, but our fundraiser was attended by genuine brothers and sisters who care about the plight of Aafia and they genuinely want to help.
They know the day Aafia is freed is the day that some pride and honour will be restored to Pakistan … a great country which has been badly represented by a series of rotten and corrupt regimes.
There were some interesting questions from the audience last night directed at Muslim Legal Fund of America – not least of all why is it still fund-raising for Aafia when the Pakistan government has taken the unprecedented step of paying $2m for her legal team.
The answer is very simple. We learned that getting justice for Aafia is just the start of a gargantuan battle – once she is released, insh'Allah, we want to be able to reunite her with her family – ALL of her family including two of her three children who are still missing.
Someone, somewhere knows the whereabouts of the two children Maryam and Sulaiman and despite the best efforts of Aafia's family to track them down professional help is needed.
I also believe that someone from US intelligence has the answers but is keeping quiet, however they are sitting on a ticking time bomb. Two of those children are US citizens and the kidnap of US citizens by US authorities will not be tolerated. It is a step too far.
Snatching their mother from a taxi in Karachi, dumping her in Bagram and developing a whole programme of torture is one thing, but kidnapping wholly innocent children – American citizens at that – is unacceptable, even by the basement standards set by the Bush Administration.
New man Barack Obama said "sunlight is the best disinfectant" before he came to office and he is right. The time has now come for full transparency.
Let's bring an end to this Mickey Mouse trial of Aafia – an interesting analogy when you consider I'm in the land where the Disney Corporation is founded.
Let's make dua for a 'happy ever after' scenario from the nightmare which has visited the Siddiqui family.
* Yvonne Ridley leaves New York and is heading south tomorrow – for more information visit www.mlfausa.org
Day 3 – leaving New York
INTEREST in Aafia Siddiqui's forthcoming trial is certainly gaining momentum in the media – and much has been generated from those journalists who serve the Pakistani community in America.
Yesterday I spent several hours talking to Pakistani journalists and giving background interviews about the case as well as doing a television interview from a TV studio in Queens, New York.
It is imperative we stop the speculation, the false accusations and the nonsense which has been pedalled or deliberately planted in the media by those briefing on behalf of the US intelligence agencies.
I've been trying to track some of these stories and internet-driven rumours – one URL has actually been traced to the US Embassy in Dhaka, Bangladesh!
There's a Bob and Linda who are obviously one in the same who regularly contribute to pro-Aafia websites in a bid to discredit her – these viral attacks fuel misinformation and gossip designed to confuse those taking an interest in her trial which has been scheduled for January.
But perhaps one of the most significant nuggets of information which came my way yesterday is that a key prosecution witness – one of the young US soldiers involved in the shooting of Aafia in the prison cell in Ghazni, Afghanistan last July – has himself been severely wounded in Afghanistan.
Friendly fire or Taliban attack? It's really difficult to say how or why this star witness was put in the firing line in Afghanistan when he was supposed to give evidence in such an important trial this month.
The prosecution, who are trying desperately to fudge the whole issue, have asked for the trial to be delayed until January. Hmm. Does anyone smell fish?
* Yvonne Ridley will address a crowd in Birmingham, Alabama tonight – for more information visit www.mlfausa.org
Day 4 of Justice for Aafia U.S. Tour reaches Alabama
Sweet Home Alabama is the title of a 2002 Hollywood movie as well as a 70s hit for the rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd, and it is a phrase that seemed to be on every other car registration plate I saw this evening as I made my way to Birmingham University in the Deep South of America.
I later learned that earlier this year the State of Alabama adopted the phrase as its official slogan on motor vehicle license plates.
Myself and Saghir Hussein from Cageprisoners were joined by civil rights activist El Hajj Mauri Salakan and Khalil Meek from the Muslim legal Foundation of America on a platform to address a lively, largely student audience about the injustices in the Muslim community largely due to the War on Terror.
It was a successful event and, as you would expect, everyone left with a hardened resolve to do what they could to help Dr Aafia Siddiqui whom I had highlighted as a woman denied justice for more than six years since she and her three children were abducted from Karachi in March 2003.
Tonight as I write to you I began to think more and more about the significance of the phrase "Sweet Home Alabama" and realised with great sadness that Dr Aafia had not experienced her 'Sweet Home' for many years.
You see it doesn't matter where in the world we live and work, home is where the family is and Dr Aafia has been denied her family since that dreadful night she was ripped apart from her three children.
Most of you reading this column in the Tehreek e-Insaf website are familiar with her tragic story thanks to the relentless campaigning done by your leader Imran Khan.
But just a few hours ago many of the Alabama students I addressed sat in disbelief as I relayed the story to them.
One of the many things I asked them to do as part of a campaign to raise awareness about Aafia was to write to her or send a card to let her know that while she may sit alone in an isolation cell, she is not forgotten.
So after you read this I want you to do two things. The first is look around and appreciate your loved ones and think about those who complete your 'Sweet Home" and the second is to send a short message to our dear sister and tell her she is not alone.
Send your mail to: Dr Aafia Siddiqui, 90279-054, MDC Brooklyn, Metropolitan Detention Center, PO Box 329002. Brooklyn, NY 11232.
And remember, until she is reunited with her mother, brother, sister and her own three children in Pakistan, we're about the nearest thing she has to family these days.
My next destination is Georgia … more news tomorrow.
Day 5 – Georgia
DRIVING on America's freeways can be a mind-numbingly boring experience as I discovered when we left Alabama for Atlanta in the neighbouring state of Georgia.
It was quite a trek and as the highway cut a straight swathe through the unremarkable countryside I looked around for a distraction.
My thoughts drifted to the night before in Birmingham University – all those young students high on activism who turned out to listen to the story of Dr Aafiya Siddiqui. At the end of the meeting many pledged to support and campaign for justice and with their fearless outlook on life I'm sure their contributions will prove to be invaluable.
I wished we could bottle the fearlessness of youth as we carry on our journey through life but with advancing years it seems for many of us our fears increase and activism diminishes.
Feeling slightly depressed by my thoughts I looked ahead and noticed a road sign for Montgomery, home to one of the most famous human rights battles in the world and then I remembered the name of Alabama's Rosa Louise McCauley.
She lived in relative obscurity for 42 years, until one fateful day in December of 1955, when she waited for a bus after a hard day working as a seamstress. When it finally arrived all the seats in the back, where Blacks were allowed to sit, were quickly taken so Rosa sat down in the white section.
The bus driver told her and several other African Americans to give up their seats to whites who got on after she did. Rosa Parks, as she was then known, refused to move: The bus driver called the police, and she was arrested.
That one single act of resistance sparked a movement against segregation in Montgomery, which started with a 381-day bus boycott by African Americans. The leader of that boycott was a young Black minister named Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Rosa's nonviolent passive resistance officially launched the Civil Rights Movement and on December 21, 1956, the boycott ended when the US Supreme Court declared bus segregation unconstitutional.
Some hours later as we headed off the freeway to our destination in Atlanta I noticed the road ahead was named after Dr King and then another boulevard bore the name of a peanut farmer who went on to become US President Jimmy Carter.
I reflected that for many Carter's greatness didn't really manifest itself until after his presidency when he then became actively involved in the battle for justice for for Palestine.
His recent book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid brought round condemnation from the Zionist lobby because of its criticism of what he considered to be racism by the State of Israel. Each word carefully crafted, the book is a tribute to his courage.
That evening myself, Saghir Hussein from Cageprisoners, Khalil Meek the President of the Muslim Legal Fund of America and several others spoke about justice and the ongoing legal battles challenging the Muslim community.
As I looked around there were many different faces representing the community in Atlanta, young and old, Muslims and non-Muslims, students, pensioners, workers. They listened intently, applauded, cried Allahu Akhbar and donated generously to the MLFA when they were asked for financial support.
Caught between a rock and a hard place I thought any one of them could step up to the mark just like Rosa did.
The reality is none of us are born brave. We can't buy courage over the shop counter but we all want justice. Now the question you have to ask yourself is just how far are you prepared to go for it?
* Yvonne's next blog comes to you from Milwaukee in Wisconsin, America's mid-West.
Day 6 – Milwaukee
I arrived in America's Mid West after a flight from Atlanta in the Deep South to be greeted by cold drizzle and grey skies but the weather failed to put a dampener on what turned out to be an excellent meeting at the Islamic Society's community masjid in Milwaukee.
Milwaukee is the largest city in the State of Wisconsin and the 23rd largest in America, and just a few miles away from the masjid is a smaller city called Franklin named in honour of one of the Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin – more of him later.
Hundreds of locals turned out to hear my story at the hands of the Taliban and as I told the tale of how I moved from being a Captive after 9/11 to a Convert in 2003 they appeared to hang on to every word.
They held their breath at times as I described my ordeal at the hands of the Taliban described by Bush and Blair as "the most evil, brutal regime in the world."
They roared with laughter as I revealed how I fell off a donkey and went on to become the prisoner from hell in Jalalabad. And they looked on in disbelief as I described how the Taliban reacted to my bad behaviour with almost suffocating kindness.
It was an entertaining evening which may seem slightly at odds with my mission which was to talk about the plight of Dr Aafia Siddiqui, but it served to highlight the tale of two women prisoners and the difference in treatment.
And it also raised the question of which society was more civilised and which was beyond primitive in its treatment of women prisoners.
Aafia was also held in Afghanistan, but while my captors did their best to treat me as "their guest" during my brief period in prison the same can not be said about the five grim years Aafia was held at the behest of US intelligence, much of it in Bagram.
I was treated with courtesy and respect but Aafia, according to various eye witness accounts, was brutalised as Bagram's Grey Lady and Prisoner 650.
In 2005 the hundreds of men being held by the US in Bagram were so disgusted at the brutal treatment meted out to the tiny, frail mother-of-three that they went on hunger strike until she was moved out of the men's prison.
Until then she kept them awake every night with her haunting sobs and piercing screams – in truth some of the men are still kept awake at night haunted by what they saw and heard of Aafia in Bagram.
No one knows for sure why she was kidnapped in March 2003 because the charges she faces today do not reflect anything from her past. Many of us believe Aafia to be wholly innocent of any crime.
I, on the other hand, was guilty of breaking the law by entering Afghanistan without a passport and visa. Despite my crime I was released on humanitarian grounds by the Taliban's spiritual leader Mullah Omar.
If there is any justice in this world then President Obama will do the same for Aafia. The US can gain nothing from her continued detention, but this one, single act of humanity will at least remind us of the days when America represented liberty and freedom for all.
Which brings me back to Benjamin Franklin, a man of peace, politics and amazing vision. Obama would do well to heed these particular words of wisdom from Franklin: "Those who would sacrifice freedom for security deserve neither."
* Yvonne Ridley heads for Texas tomorrow
Day 7 – Dallas
IT'S FRIDAY, so it must be Dallas! No need to adjust your television sets, I'm not talking about the hit TV soap based on the oil-rich Ewing family.
I am, in fact, referring to my port of entry in to the State of Texas … the so-called buckle of the Bible Belt and home to nearly 25 million people.
Our small group of civil rights activists – Muslim Legal Fund of America President Khalil Meek, Cageprisoners Saghir Hussein and myself – arrived to a packed reception organised by supporters of the MLFA.
Many there represented the elite of the Dallas Muslim community and probably one of the best informed groups when it comes to the plight of Dr Aafia Siddiqui.
A large number of those present still have close ties to Pakistan and while Dr Aafia was not far from their thoughts, the focus of the night soon moved to the state of the troubled tribal areas, Swat and Waziristan.
"Who is the Pakistan Taliban?" was one of the most frequently asked questions. I had asked the same question earlier this month when I met Imran Khan, leader of Tehreek e-Insaf and so I responded with the answer he gave me during this interview for Press TV (http://www.presstv.ir/programs/detail.aspx?sectionid=3510531&id=108750#108750)
I told them how a drone attack in Waziristan in September 2004 had caused the deaths of scores of innocent people. The indiscriminate bombing provoked anger which was reflected in the 3000-strong turnout the following day for the funeral. Imran told me how another drone interrupted the mourning killing scores more.
And that was the moment the Pakistan Taliban was born. Those present at the Dallas event listened in silence while a few nodded knowingly and others shook their heads in despair and disbelief.
Pakistan is a country I love dearly and so I share their concerns for its future while sharing their anger at its constant demonisation in the media.
Of course the demonisation is deliberate and calculated because you can't bomb nice people, can you? Just as in the same way you can't convict or prosecute innocent people.
And so we can draw parallels here with Dr Aafia's case because anytime soon there is going to be a concerted effort by US intelligence services to try and demonise the Karachi-born mother-of-three whose only crime is her Faith.
They will do this by trying to plant nonsense stories about her in the media, but I hope that journalists – especially from America – will not be hoodwinked as easily as they were during the grim period which led up to the Abu Ghraib scandal.
With the exception of the Baltimore Sun, most US newspapers tried to ignore the scandal when it finally broke and then had to play the embarrassing game of catch up with the rest of the world's media when the then US President, George W Bush, was forced to make a public statement.
Talking of Dubya, I'm sure it has not been lost on any of you that I currently writing this blog from his backyard – well I know Texas is a vast state and Crawford, where his ranch is situated is several hours drive from my location in Dallas so perhaps that was a bit of an exaggeration.
But I thought I'd share some news with you which may raise a smile if not a snigger.
As we drove from the Dallas-Fort Worth airport I noticed one of the highways was called President George Bush and wondered out loud what his son's legacy would be. The answer came back very quickly – a library, yes a library in the name of the president with the lowest IQ ever to sit in the White House!
The George W. Bush Presidential Library will be the nation's 13th presidential library, and will eventually be located on the campus of the Southern Methodist University here in Dallas.
Some quick research revealed that Dubya's reading house will hold millions of pages of official records documenting his two-term administration (2001-2009) as the 43rd US President. In addition to these textual records, I have discovered the library will also boast millions of electronic records as well as an extensive audiovisual collection containing photographs and videotapes.
I wonder if these will include the infamous torture archives the new US President Barack Obama doesn't want us to see … pictures of prisoner abuse, interrogation, torture including those carried out against Aafia in Bagram, Afghanistan?
Now there's a thought – may be we will get some transparency from those dark years of the Bush War on Terror after all.
* Tomorrow Yvonne will be writing her blog from Houston as she nears the end of her six State tour of the US.
I have never met Dr Aafia Siddiqui but I feel as though I know more about her now having embarked on a six-state tour of the USA to promote awareness about the injustices of her case.
Last night marked the final event and for me it was probably the most significant because of the people who turned out in their hundreds.
I learned so much more about the personal side of Aafia last night than I have since I began investigating her kidnap and disappearance from her home city of Karachi way back in March 2003.
You see many of those who turned up for the final leg of my tour with the Muslim Legal Fund of America simply wanted to show their support and solidarity for the mother-of-three because they know Aafia so well.
She moved into their community in Texas in 1990 to be near her brother, and after spending a year at the University of Houston, transferred to MIT in Boston.
But throughout her time in the USA she was a frequent visitor to her brother's family home where she was hugely respected and admired by the neighbours.
One took to the stage of the Taj Hall near Savoy Drive, Houston last night to share his memories of Aafia Siddiqui and the rest of her family he had gleaned over 25 years.
He said it was as likely that she was a member of al-Qaida as his own mother who, he added with a smile, was a good Roman Catholic lady.
He examined in forensic detail all the media speculation, planted stories and rumours killing each one off with his own personal facts and observations giving us an insight into the woman many of you only know as the Grey Lady of Bagram, Prisoner 650.
We also learned about Aafia's favourite uncle in Islamabad – a man with a gift for spinning the most mundane stories into extravagant, amusing vignettes. According to the uncle, Aafia visited him during a period when she had disappeared and he told gullible journalists how she had appeared to him wearing a full face veil. At one stage she let her veil slip to reveal a new look as a result of extensive cosmetic surgery performed to change her facial appearance.
Enjoying the attention from the media, he embellished his story in details as each journalist arrived at his home.
Of course this does not explain how Aafia looks today. Did she really go to the bother of cosmetic surgery only to have the surgeons undo and reverse all of their work?
No one doubts the uncle did have a female visitor to his home posing as Aafia but it is quite clear to all now that she was working for the intelligence agencies to try and muddy the water over Aafia's whereabouts when she was in the hands of the US.
In fact a lot of people have gone to a great deal of trouble to cover up her disappearance and I believe this is for many different reasons … not least of all two of her three children are US citizens who have rights under US law and it appears those rights have indeed been violated by – US lawmakers of all people.
The time has come for transparency and the clock is now ticking against all of those involved in the kidnapping, rendition and shooting of Aafia.
An entire community in Houston knows the case against her is a tissue of lies. The majority of Pakistani people have also seen through the deceit and now the Muslim world is beginning to peer closely into the case with growing shock and disbelief.
Only the US Ambassador in Islamabad Anne W. Patterson – a relic of the Bush Administration – is in complete denial about Aafia's case … time to give it up Anne you are beginning to look increasingly ridiculous by claiming she was never held in Bagram. We have the evidence. You've already had to retract statements about women in Bagram and your credibility really is on the line.
When the US Embassy in Islamabad sent a series of letters to the local Pakistan newspapers to try and refute my story about Prisoner 650, the Grey Lady of Bagram I knew there was a sense of panic. The steps taken by the US Ambassador and her staff was without precedent.
But the folk I feel more pity for are the lawyers on the prosecution team who have to peddle the lies and misinformation given to them by the FBI. They've already asked for two trial adjournments – well you can't fire a gun when you've no ammunition, can you?
Or, as my great Uncle Vern from Minnesota once observed: "You can't soar with eagles when you work with turkeys."
And this trial is not a secret military tribunal in Guantanamo hidden away from the world's media. Aafia's case will receive global attention when it opens next January and while the New York judge appears to be doing his best to be fair and even handed, the prosecution is flailing around with a pig in a poke. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter how much lipstick the FBI uses on this pig it will still be a pig when the trial opens.
And it doesn't matter how many threats or intimidation are used in an attempt to stop me or others like me from revealing the truth, we will continue to demand justice and continue to fight for justice for as long as it takes.
The US authorities can end this charade now by showing compassion and returning Aafia to her family immediately.
Surely the time has come for damage limitation – retrieving just a little dignity has to be better than continuing with deceit and acts of desperation.