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Dr Aafia did or didn’t?

By Fasi Zaka

I admit that there has been one topic I have been reluctant to write about for a year now, despite occasional prodding from the readers. When I first heard about Dr Aafia Siddiqui’s case, I immediately held an uninformed opinion; I thought she was guilty. It didn’t matter to me that she was a woman, and I felt if she had been Al Qaeda then she deserved punishment.

This gut reaction probably came from the circumstantial evidence surrounding the case, of which there is a considerable amount. So, instead of writing something that was obviously tainted with bias, I chose not to write anything. Only recently, when I was asked to an interview with an American radio station did I realise that I needed to know more than what I superficially did. While researching the case, I came across a website dedicated to Dr Aafia, and it bemoaned the lack of interest from the liberal media, of which I concede I could fall into, and in many ways that criticism is valid.

My unequivocal position has changed by looking at the facts and disputed facts of the case. I feel significant doubt regarding my earlier conclusion. That is not to say that I feel she is innocent, but I don’t think it can be said with certainty either that she is guilty.

But, perhaps most interesting is to understand why certain people have positions regarding her innocence or guilt (myself included). My initial beliefs are probably rooted in reactionary thinking against certain groups and how they champion her cause.

For those individuals, it does not matter whether she may or not be guilty. They feel affronted that a Pakistani sister, mother, daughter and wife has been given up on. Being an accomplice to terrorism as a part of Al Qaeda doesn’t matter to them, even if it turns out to be true. All that matters is that she is being tried by the US and her case has been subsumed by nationalism. Her missing children have also struck a raw nerve, leading many to cite it as an example of the US’ barbarity behind its civil cloak. However, few are willing to admit that she willfully neglected her duties towards her children by endangering them.

In general, this utter unwillingness to address possible guilt turns me off. They want to influence the legal system but do not believe in it, simply because a fair and negative verdict will never be accepted by them. But frankly, the judgment against Dr Aaafia by the US court doesn’t appear to be fair. And this is why despite these caveats of intention those who doubt her guilt have a strong case, too. The story of how she was nabbed in Afghanistan appears unlikely. From being behind a curtain, stealing a weapon placed at the foot of a soldier and then being shot in retaliation when they knew she was there is a weird accumulation of circumstances. Then, of course, getting tried and being found guilty for it rather than the allegations of involvement in terrorism is another. On top of it a Pakistani citizen who could possibly have been in illegal detention in Afghanistan by the US supposedly commits a crime in Afghanistan and is then tried in the US for an incident which is not what she was initially wanted for?

There is also the possibility that she is not mentally fit to understand what is going on around her. Her recent photos speak of tragedy and hardship. Plus, she happens to be described as some sort of brilliant scientist at the disposal of Al Qaeda by the western media, whereas her research for her PhD was anything but something that could be used for terrorism (she contributed to the theory that man learns by imitation).

With all this in mind, it’s good that the government of Pakistan spent money on her defence. She is someone who very likely could have been handed over to the Americans in violation of all our laws if she was truly in captivity all this time. Her case is worth pursuing because it is not an open-and-shut one that the courts in the US have decided against her.

Despite all of this, there are still some troubling issues. She isn’t someone randomly picked up in a massive miscarriage of justice; she was on the radar of the US as early as 2002. In addition, even a UN Commission alleges that she was a member of Al Qaeda. Apparently it was Khalid Sheikh Mohammad who gave up her name in 2003 when he was arrested – that of course cannot be verified thanks to the illegal detention center that Guantanamo is.

The court record says that her lawyer confirmed her second marriage to a man already in custody who is supposedly an Al Qaeda operative. Her previous husband alleges that her children are not missing but actually in the custody of her sister and that she has not been detained for five years by the US before the shooting incident. Most troubling is an account of her uncle who claims to have met her in the period when her supporters allege she was in the US custody. The journalist Declan Walsh wrote a very prescient piece which noted that the key to understanding the truth would be to know where Dr Aafia was for the five “missing years” before her arrest; was she illegally and inhumanly held by the US or was she working for Al Qaeda? One person who could answer this is the son of Dr Aafia, but his testimony or presence has not been forwarded by Dr Aafia’s family in whose custody he is currently.

For either side, those who believe in her guilt and those who don’t, to say something conclusively is impossible at this stage despite their claims. Guilt needs to be established beyond reasonable doubt, but this case sets a long shadow with many unanswered questions. Her defence therefore is imperative to prevent a miscarriage of justice which has probably happened with the guilty verdict she has been handed down. Her sentencing is still left, and the inevitable appeal. But the US won’t be pressurised by a government like ours which it can easily ignore. For those campaigning for a fair shake to Dr Aafia the key will be involving the US media to give more scrutiny to a case it has largely ignored given its obsessive attention to the recession and domestic issues.

The writer is a Rhodes scholar and former academic. Email: [email protected]

Source: The News

Date:3/4/2010

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