USA v Aafia Siddiqui
Cageprisoners Inside the Courtroom Coverage
by Petra Bartosiewicz
On January 19 the long awaited trial of Aafia Siddiqui began in a federal courtroom in Manhattan. Her case has been one of the most baffling in the annals of post-9/11 terrorism prosecutions. Siddiqui, as regular readers of this website know, is a 37-year-old, MIT-educated neuroscientist, who lived in the U.S. for ten years before mysteriously vanishing from Karachi, her hometown, in 2003, along with her three children, two of whom are American born. For five years her whereabouts remained unknown, while rumors swirled that she was an Al Qaeda operative, and that she had married Ammar al Baluchi, the nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and one of the five accused 9/11 plotters expected to face trial in the U.S. In July 2008 she was picked up in Ghazni, Afghanistan on suspicion of being a suicide bomber. The following day, as a team of U.S. soldiers and FBI agents arrived to question her at the police station where she was being held, she allegedly managed to get hold of an M-4 automatic rifle belonging to one of the soldiers, and, according to prosecutors, she opened fire. She hit no one but was herself hit in the abdomen by return fire. What is known is that the U.S. considered Siddiqui to be someone connected to a number of high level terrorism suspects. They say she went on the run and remained underground during her missing years. But human rights groups have long held that Siddiqui is no extremist and believe she was illegally detained and interrogated by Pakistani intelligence at the behest of the U.S. She now faces charges of attempted murder.
January 29, 2009 (DAY 9)
A day after Siddiqui took the stand in her own defense, her attorneys rested their case. Closing arguments are now set for Monday morning, with jurors expected to begin their deliberations later in the day. In dramatic testimony on Thursday, Siddiqui testified over the objections of her defense team, who argued she is mentally unstable, and described in vivid terms her account of the events at the Afghan National Police headquarters in Ghazni. Siddiqui told jurors she never touched the M-4 automatic rifle she is accused of firing at a group of U.S. soldiers, FBI agents and Afghan police officers and officials. She said that as she peered from behind a curtain where she was being held, she surprised the U.S. team and was shot. "I just wanted to get out of the room," she said. "I never attempted murder. That's a heavy word. No way."
On Friday prosecutors called three rebuttal witnesses to counter statements Siddiqui made during her testimony. Gary Woodworth, a longtime member of the Braintree Rifle and Pistol Club in Massachusetts, said he instructed Siddiqui in a basic 12-hour pistol shooting course in the early 1990's. On the stand prosecutors had asked Siddiqui if she received instruction at the club while living in Boston. "I have no recollection of that," she said. "Actually, you can take that as a no." But Woodworth told jurors he recognized Siddiqui from a photo and recalled he gave her instruction in the use of a 9 mm pistol, among other guns, but not an M-4 rifle. The other two witnesses to testify in the government's rebuttal were the same FBI agents who took the stand on Thursday during a hearing that took place without the jury present. At the hearing, which was meant to determine whether to permit Siddiqui to testify, Special Agents Bruce Kamerman and Angela Sercer both told Judge Richard Berman that they questioned Siddiqui while she was recuperating from her gunshot wounds in Bagram Air Base. While on the stand later that day Siddiqui told jurors that Kamerman had mistreated her, watching her as her wounds were dressed and when she went to the bathroom. She denied making any statements to him. But on the stand Friday, Kamerman told jurors Siddiqui had, in fact, initiated a number of conversations with him. He said she told him she hadn't shot anyone in Ghazni. He said she told him she'd never seen, handled or fired a rifle and she picked up the M-4 rifle because it was leaning up against a wall and she wanted to look at it. "She was holding the rifle when she was shot," Kamerman said. He said Siddiqui later volunteered a different version of events, telling him she picked up the rifle because "she wanted to scare the men so she could escape." But Kamerman did not say that Siddiqui ever confessed to firing the rifle. On cross examination, defense attorney Elaine Sharpe asked Kamerman whether he knew that Siddiqui was on medications such as Percocet and morphine and suggested that her statements were affected by the drugs in her system. The third witness in the rebuttal case, FBI Special Agent Angela Sercer, repeated much of the testimony she gave at the preliminary hearing, saying that she was assigned to gather intelligence from Siddiqui in Bagram during her recuperation. Sercer said she developed a good rapport with Siddiqui as she sat by her bedside, sometimes for 12-hour shifts over a period of approximately two weeks. "She was initially weaker but she became stronger as she began to heal," said Sercer, who described Siddiqui as "very intelligent." She said Siddiqui was particularly open to teaching her about Islam.
Jurors also heard the completion of testimony begun earlier this week in the form of two videotaped depositions taken in Ghazni, Afghanistan from eyewitnesses to the shooting incident. The first was the former deputy chief of counterterrorism in Ghazni, Abdul Qadeer, who testified through a translator that he questioned Siddiqui when she was brought to the police headquarters after being arrested near one of the city's mosques on July 17, 2008. The second witness was Qadeer's deputy, who spoke Urdu and said he was called in to assist in the questioning of Siddiqui and her son. Qadeer said Siddiqui had a young boy with her, who would later be identified as her eldest son, Ahmad. He described how he and a number of other police on staff beat Siddiqui because they believed she was a suicide bomber. "The whole scene was like a drama," he said. "The governor came and hit her and the chief of police came and hit her, and the governor's body guard would come and give her a punch." He said Siddiqui did not want to be handed over to the coalition forces and twice tried to escape. The second time she threatened Qadeer with a can she said contained "exploding materials," but he said he knew the can was empty and disregarded the threat. She was bound but later untied and Qadeer was present in the room where Siddiqui was being held behind a curtain when the U.S. team arrived. He said he saw a soldier go behind the curtain and immediately after that he heard shots. He said there was a stampede of people trying to get out of the room and in the chaos he fell from his chair and was trampled.
Closing arguments are scheduled for Monday, Feb 1, with Day 10, USA v Siddiqui.
Petra Bartosiewicz is a freelance journalist who has written for numerous publications, including The Nation, Mother Jones, and Salon.com. Her forthcoming book on terrorism trials in the U.S., The Best Terrorists We Could Find, will be published by Nation Books early next year. You can find her investigation of Aafia Siddiqui's case, "The Intelligence Factory: How America Makes its Enemies Disappear," in the November 2009 issue of Harper's magazine (www.harpers.org) and at her website www.petrabart.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.