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Let Aafia Go Home

18 February 2010


From Khaleej Times
by: Aijaz Zaka Syed

Reading all those legal thrillers by John Grisham and watching Hollywood blockbusters that portray innocent individuals framed and ensnared by a powerful system, one always thought: Of course, these things do not happen in real life.

I am not so sure anymore though.  The abduction, persecution and now conviction of Dr Aafia Siddiqui, an MIT-educated neuroscientist, by the US authorities reads like a regulation Grisham thriller written for Hollywood.

Aafia disappeared with her three children on her way to Karachi airport for Islamabad way back in 2003.  Five years later, she was presented in a New York court in March 2008 as “a top Al Qaeda terrorist” and the “most dangerous woman on earth,” as US Attorney-General John Ashcroft put it.

The US authorities claimed then that Aafia was captured near Ghazni governor’s office in Afghanistan with a bag that carried instructions on making explosives and a list of US landmarks.

But more damningly, the US authorities claimed that the frail mother of three attacked a team of eight US soldiers, FBI and Afghan officials in Ghazni with a highly sophisticated, heavy M-4 gun in Ghazni when they went to question her.  Surprisingly though, it’s Aafia who ended up with two gunshot wounds, inflicted point blank.  None of the officials she allegedly attacked sustained any injuries or wounds.

Last week, after months of courtroom drama and charade of a trial, Aafia was convicted of attempted murder and attacking US soldiers and FBI officials with a deadly weapon.

If you think this is an impossibly implausible yarn, you are right.  This case, if it can be called that, is perhaps the most potent example of Orwellian justice and the evil and absurd nature of the so-called war on terror.  Like I said, you always believed that such things happened only in the movies and world of fiction.  

I mean there are so many gaping holes in the “case” that the US authorities have built against Aafia that the UN Charter of Human Rights, Magna Carta and US constitution can pass through them all at once.

The biggest and most obvious absurdity of this case is the fact that Aafia was presented before the world as a dreaded terrorist and “Al Qaeda mastermind” but she has been tried on the charges of assaulting US officials with the intent to kill.  If she was a terrorist why she was not tried on terrorism charges and why on using a gun to attack US soldiers?

Where was Aafia hiding or hidden between 2003 and 2008, after she was picked up in Karachi apparently by the overenthusiastic Pakistani authorities and was turned over to the US officials as an Al Qaeda terrorist? How did she end up in Ghazni? What happened to her children, two of whom are US citizens? And if she had indeed been planning terror attacks, would she be moving around with the incriminating “evidence” of bomb-making material in her bag? And if she had really been on a murderous mission, would she set out with her three young children in tow, the youngest of them was a six-month old baby?

I mean the authorities could have at least demonstrated some common sense and ingenuity in framing and setting up Aafia.  This is an insult to the intelligence of ordinary Americans—majority of whom apparently believe in reason, common sense, justice and rule of law – and the rest of the world.

I am no Sherlock Holmes or Perry Mason.  But it doesn’t take an extraordinary mind to unravel this cock-and-bull plot against a helpless, innocent woman.  This whole thing stinks – it stinks even at this distance.

Let’s face it: This is the story of another innocent individual being victimised and persecuted in the name of war on terror and freedom and democracy.

Aafia is just one of the hundreds of innocent men and women picked up in Pakistan under the “enlightened and moderate leadership” of General Pervez Musharraf and sold over to the Americans in the name of fighting terror and in response to the US pressure on Islamabad to “do more.”

God only knows how many such innocents are rotting out there in gulags like Guantanamo Bay and Bagram and many other secret, nameless prisons around the world.  Look at Aafia’s background.  She grew up in the US and went to some of the best schools and colleges crowning her Ivy League education with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a PhD in cognitive neuroscience from Brandeis University.  She returned to Pakistan after the 9/11 events and thought she was safe back home in Karachi surrounded by ?friends and family.

How could she have known that her own government would sell her to the Americans for a price? If this could happen to a US-educated neuroscientist, I shudder at the plight of ordinary, ?illiterate folk.  

British journalist Yvonne Ridley, who has been campaigning for Aafia’s release for two years as part of human rights group Cageprisoners, believes that the Pakistani scientist is none other than the Prisoner No. 650 who was held and tortured for years at the infamous Bagram prison and came to be known as the Grey Lady of Bagram.

Ridley’s claim is backed by Moazzam Begg, the Briton who spent years at Bagram and Guantamo Bay before being released as innocent. Begg talked of the Grey Lady of Bagram and how her excruciating screams haunted him at Bagram in his recent book, ?Enemy Combatant.

If Aafia’s imprisonment and persecution all these years – for seven years – was an affront to all that America claims to champion, the guilty verdict against her following this sham of a trial is the ultimate mockery of justice and due process of law.

It just beats me how the New York court and jury returned a guilty verdict despite Aafia’s first person account of her frame-up and subsequent persecution and her physical condition. She had to be brought on a wheel chair into the court and most of the time she was in no condition and shape to understand what was going on around her.

There was absolutely no evidence linking Aafia to the gun, no bullets, no residue from firing it. In fact, FBI’s ballistics expert Carlo Rosati conceded he cannot confirm with certainty that any shots were fired from the M4 rifle.

Yet they found Aafia guilty and the minimum sentence Aafia faces on the ridiculous charges brought against her is life in prison.   

As Yvonne Ridley says in a recent piece, “the jury couldn’t handle the truth.” Because that would have meant acknowledging that an innocent woman had been really abducted, abused, and held in dark, secret prisons before being shot and put on a rendition flight to New York. The jury, as Ridley puts it, so desperately wanted not to believe that their country could have had a hand in all these crimes against a defenceless, lone woman. They just couldn’t handle the truth!

President Barack Obama gave all of us hope when he took over from George W Bush, promising to shut down the Guantanamo Bay within a year and uphold justice and the rule of law.  Even though the Gitmo is still far from shut, many of us still haven’t quite given up on Obama’s promise to restore the world’s trust in America.

President Obama also promised, and repeatedly, of a “new way forward with the Muslim world.” Even on this front, he is yet to show progress.

But if Obama is indeed keen to turn a new leaf with the Islamic world, he could do so by setting Aafia free.  He should use his extraordinary powers to put an end to this poor woman’s terrible, terrible nightmare. Aafia has become the most potent symbol of injustice across the Islamic world and all that went horribly wrong with Bush’s war on terror.

Obama could signal a break with that dark past by freeing Aafia.  Let her go home, Mr President. God knows she has suffered enough.  It’s time to show America has moved on.

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