Yvonne Ridley on Dr. Aafia SiddiquiFebruary 5, 2010
Dr AAFIA Siddiqui is a bright, intelligent woman who has been through hell having being kidnapped, tortured in secret prisons, gunned down by US soldiers and renditioned to America where she is now facing attempted murder charges against those who shot her. Only in the cock-eyed crosshairs of George W Bush’s War on Terror could this happen and I hope to God that the jurors who will go through the evidence during the next few hours, if not days, see through this rotten legacy and recognize the case for what it is … a tissue of lies enveloped in a web of deceit. The last seven years of Dr Aafia’s life could have been penned by a Hollywood scriptwriter, but instead all the folk from Tinsel Town could come up with was the rather tame blockbuster movie Rendition starring Reese Witherspoon. But several days ago those of us following the case closely were given a glimpse into the dark, mysterious world in which Dr Aafia has been forced to live since 2003.
And more importantly the details were relayed in a hushed court not by any lawyer, but by the only person qualified to talk with any authority about dark prisons, interrogations and abuse – the account relayed to the courtroom in Manhattan, New York came from the mouth of Dr Aafia herself. Running for more than two weeks there’s been little or no record in the Western media of this shocking case other than some of the most ill-informed, embarrassingly skewed reports which indicate the noble profession of journalism is still in a narcotic malaise in the Big Apple. That the New York Times had to apologise to its readers on the front page for selling them short on the build up to and the unfolding war in Iraq, one would have thought would have had an impact on the quality of future output. That the US press corps, with the exception of The Baltimore Sun, had to play catch up after ‘missing’ the Abu Ghraib scandal speaks volumes.
Sadly it seems that huge swathes of the US media have learned nothing. Just a few days ago an embarrassing wealth of riches in terms of soundbites which would have had most journalists salivating like a Pavlov Dog came tumbling out in the lower Manhattan court.
But like a gaggle of bald men fighting over a comb, the scribes present in the main courtroom could only focus on one irrelevant detail … Dr Aafia Siddiqui had fired a pistol at a gun club. Excuse me? This is America … where half the adult population live in houses where guns are kept. Let’s keep it real – America has 80 million gun owners with a total of 258 million guns. Possibly the most wronged woman in the entire War on Terror had just revealed how she was held in secret prisons, with no legal representation, cut off from the outside world since 2003 where brutal interrogation techniques were used to break her down. And, to make matters even worse when she was kidnapped from her home city in Karachi, Pakistan her three children were also snatched … the fact two of those children are American citizens held no sway with the majority of the assembled press corps. One wondered if their pants had caught fire if they would have even smelled the smoke. And so what held the Western media attention? Well, it transpired that Dr Aafia may have taken a pistol shooting course as part of her curriculum in an American university. That’s a bit like an American tourist ordering fish and chips and a cup of tea on arrival in Britain. Hold the front page! So for your benefit, let me tell you about the real “shock, horror, drama” that you won’t read in the New York Times or the rest of the corporate media.
After two weeks of being baited and defamed, in a calm, articulate and precise manner Dr Aafia Siddiqui finally had her day – and her say – in court. It should have been a moment of schadenfreude for the prosecution team as they prepared to sit back and enjoy the spectacle of the defendant rant and rave like a mad woman when she decided on her right to take the stand. Perhaps Judge Richard Berman, a modest little man with much to be modest about, must have thought his rather unremarkable legal career would finally make more than just the current footnote in Wikipedia. Most of her own legal team watched mortified in the belief that their reluctant client (she had dismissed them publicly many times to no effect) might destroy the robust defence they had built over two weeks. Even her brother Muhammad, who has sat in court everyday watching and listening to the proceedings told me he wondered if his little sister was making the right decision. Given the chance, I think I would have also advised her against speaking. Well thank goodness Dr Aafia ignored us all – within minutes of giving evidence the prosecution wanted to shut her up, Judge Berman looked like he was sucking on the bitterest of lemons and the rest of the courtroom sat back aghast.
The Pakistan media, despatched into one of the two overspill rooms frantically scribbled down their notes so as not to miss one single word and her supporters sat back aghast watching a breathtaking spectacle. One of the few community leaders who has been outstandingly vocal in his support, El-Hajj Mauri’ Saalakhan, probably expressed himself better than any of the nitwits sleeping on the press benches when he wrote: “She testified that after completing her doctorate studies she taught in a school, and that her interest was in cultivating the capabilities of dyslexic and other special needs children. “During this line of questioning, the monstrous image that the government had carefully crafted (with considerable support from mainstream media) of this petite young woman, had begun to be deconstructed. The real Dr Aafia Siddiqui – the committed muslimah, the humanity-loving nurturer and educator, the gentle yet resolute mujahid for truth and justice – began to emerge with full force”. As the evidence continued we learned that she didn’t know where her three children were – it was sensational content. She talked of her dread and fear of being handed back to the Americans when she was arrested in Ghazni and was held by police. Terrified that yet another secret prison was waiting for her she revealed how she peaked through the curtain into the part of the room where Afghans and Americans were talking, and how when a startled American soldier noticed her, he jumped up and yelled that the prisoner was loose, and shot her in the stomach. She described how she was also shot in the side by a second person. She also described how after falling back onto the bed in the room, she was violently thrown to the floor and lost consciousness. This ties in exactly with what I was told by the counter terrorism police chief I interviewed in Afghanistan back in the autumn of 2008 – I remember him laughing as he told me how the US soldiers panicked, shot and most of them ran out of the room in a panic. Hmm, no wonder the prosecution didn’t want him giving evidence in court. Instead they chose to record his interview and voiced it over with a shoddy translator who has a long distance relationship with the Pashtu language … defence team take note. Demand a real Pashtu translation because what was given out in court was misleading and not the words of the actual words of police chief – don’t take my word for it … speak to someone whose first language is Pashtu. it’s hardly rocket science. Of course there’s no way a bunch of soldiers are going to admit they lost it, but according to those I interviewed for my film In search of Prisoner 650 in Afghanistan that’s exactly what happened. But let’s return to Aafia and the cross examination which followed. When questioned on whether she had ever done any work with chemicals, her response was, “only when required.” As Mauri remarked: “This opening line of questioning was significant for its prejudice producing potential in the minds of jurors. While Aafia is notbeing charged with any terrorism conspiracy counts, the threat of terrorism has been the pink elephant in the room throughout this troubling case!” The prosecutor attempted to draw a sinister correlation between Aafia and her now ex-husband being questioned by the FBI in 2002, and leaving the US a week later. Aafia noted that there wasn’t anything sinister about the timing; they had already planned to make that trip home before the FBI visit. To underscore this point, she noted how she later returned to the US to attempt to find work in her field. Mauri said one of the most heart-wrenching moments in the cross-examination was when Dr Aafia described how she was briefly re-united with a young boy in Ghazni (July 2008) who could have been her oldest son. She spoke of how she was mentally in a daze at that time, and had not seen any of her children in five years. As a result she could not definitively (then or now) determine if that was indeed her son, Ahmed. When asked whether she had incriminating documents in her possession on the day she was arrested, Aafia testified that the bag in her possession on the day that she was re-detained was given to her. She didn’t know what was in the bag, nor could she definitively determine if the handwriting on some of the documents was hers or not. She also mentioned on a number of occasions (to the chagrin of the prosecutor) how she was repeatedly tortured by her captors at Bagram. But the killer blow was delivered when Dr Aafia mildly challenged the prosecutor in a calm, crystal clear voice that was heard throughout her testimony: “You can’t build a case on hate; you should build it on fact!”
There were other sensation moments and revealing testimony and if anyone thought that she hated Americans she removed that idea from their minds when she talked of the “fake Americans, not real Americans” who held and tortured her in the secret prisons. They were fake, she explained because real Americans would not behave in such a way to bring shame on their country. We also discovered how she was instructed to translate and copy something from a book while she was secretly imprisoned. During the course of this testimony which repeatedly drew the ire of an increasingly frustrated prosecutor, Aafia noted how she can now understand how people can be framed (for crimes they are not guilty of). It all got too much for Judge Berman who ordered a brief recess. The plan to goad and incite Dr Aafia to perform some incomprehensible, demonic rant had back-fired. When testimony resumed, we learned through the star witness how she was often forced-fed information from one group of persons at the secret prison, and then made to regurgitate the same information before a different group of inquisitors. While it was presented to her as a type of “game,” she revealed of how she would be “punished” if she got something wrong. Now, more than ever, this trial should be brought to an end. And if Judge Berman wants to go down in history for punctuating his lack lustre career as a member of the judiciary for standing up in the cause of truth and justice now is the time to do it. The truth will out and the US Government’s case has been exposed for what it is … a sham. And it is a fitting tribute to the endurance of Dr Aafia, mother-of-three, that the sham has been exposed by her. Let’s see justice being carried out in 500 Pearl Street in lower Manhattan tomorrow. Over to you, your Honour Judge Berman.
Award-winning investigative Yvonne Ridley and award-winning film-maker Hassan al Banna Ghani produced the documentary In Search of Prisoner 650 about the mysterious Grey Lady of Bagram who they conclude is Dr Aafia Siddiqui. Yvonne Ridley is also a patron of the human rights organisation Cageprisoner which first raised the issue of Dr Aafia Siddiqui shortly after she went missing in March 2003. A full report on the court proceedings can be seen on the website http://www.cageprisoners.com