A Pakistani on Trial — With Pakistani Reporters Shut Out - TIME By Petra Bartosiewicz / New York Saturday, Jan. 23, 2010. Find out what happened AFTER TIME made inquiries on Thursday to individuals in the overflow room...
Aafia Siddiqui may be a minor light in the constellation of alleged al-Qaeda operatives, but her New York City trial may be a test case for the way justice is meted out to one of the major figures accused of running the terror organization. Siddiqui is a U.S.-trained, Pakistani neuroscientist charged with attempted murder for allegedly firing an M-4 automatic rifle at a group of U.S. soldiers and FBI agents in Afghanistan. Her case has been major news in much of the Muslim world — and a crush of journalists from Pakistan have been struggling to gain access to a trial hemmed in by security-conscious New York City officials. How the foreign press is able to follow the court proceedings — and thus perceive the fairness of the trial — will have an impact on upcoming high-profile terrorism trials like that of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other suspected 9/11 plotters, likely to be held in the same courthouse as the Siddiqui case.
"If we were able to file a transcript of the proceedings they'd probably print it," Iftikhar Ali, a reporter with the Associated Press of Pakistan, said of the Siddiqui trial. "That's how much interest there is in this case." But Ali, like many other reporters from overseas, has been hampered in gaining access to the live proceedings. Journalists from Pakistan on assigment in New York have been largely excluded from the courtroom. Because of tight restrictions observed by the presiding Judge Richard Berman, not a single Pakistani reporter had been granted a press credential when opening statements began on Tuesday. They were instead sent to an overflow courtroom to watch the proceedings via video link.
(See the case against Aafia Siddiqui.)
In the overflow room this week I met journalists from Pakistan with United Nations and U.S. State Department issued press credentials. They work for some of the biggest outlets in their countries, including BBC Urdu, the Associated Press in Pakistan, Jang, Dawn, Geo and Haj TV. None were issued credentials for the trial, though some had applied weeks ago. We watched the proceedings on a flat screen television. The view didn't include any of the exhibits being offered into evidence, among them multiple diagrams of the scene of the shooting and incriminating documents allegedly written by Siddiqui. At one point a key government eyewitness stepped off the witness stand and out of range of both the camera and microphone to use a visual aid to demonstrate where he was during the shooting. He was permitted to give much of his testimony off camera.
Ali, who has been at the court every day of the trial — including jury selection — was granted access to the main courtroom for about five minutes on the first day, but was escorted out when court security guards realized he was not on the list of approved media. At the time the only other occupants of the four-row press box, which covers half the available seating in the courtroom with room for about 20 individuals, were one each from the The New York Times, The New York Post and the New York Daily News. The court has officially recognized only media who carry New York Police Department issued press passes, traditionally reserved for reporters who regularly cover crime scenes and certain public events in the city. Out of the approximately 30 such individuals from U.S. news outlets who were eligible to attend the trial, most were not present for opening statements.
"We've been coming to all the pretrial hearings and we were never told there was going to be a different system for the trial. We were told the press will be allowed," Ayesha Tanzeem, a journalist with Voice of America Urdu said. After TIME made inquiries on Thursday, individuals in the overflow room, including the Pakistani journalists, were for the first time ushered into the main courtroom during the afternoon session. But with the exception of a BBC Urdu reporter and a Samaa TV reporter who received official passes, none have been granted a press credential that would guarantee them a seat on future days.
(See the most underreported stories of 2009.)
The decision to accept solely the NYPD pass for the Siddiqui trial came from the judge's chambers, says Elly Harrold of the District Executive's office, the administrative arm at the federal courthouse. "Of course there are exceptions," Harrold said, "but I'm not at liberty to discuss that."
Although Siddiqui is not charged with any terrorism-related crime, security concerns are paramount though the procedures seem to be unevenly enforced. During the lunch break on the first day of the Siddiqui trial a group of Muslim men praying in the waiting areas outside the courtroom were afterwards asked to leave the floor. That prevented them from securing a place in line for the afternoon session. Several Muslim women in hijabs were also given similar instructions, but others in the same area, dressed in business attire, including this reporter, were permitted to stay. On the second day of the trial metal detectors were posted outside the courtroom and individuals were asked for photo identification and their names and addresses were logged by court security officers. At the close of proceedings on Thursday defense attorney Charles Swift protested the practice. "The suggestion is that the gallery may be a threat," said Swift, calling the measure "highly prejudicial."
Petra Bartosiewicz is writing a book on terrorism trials in the U.S.,The Best Terrorists We Could Find, to be published by Nation Books early next year. You can find her daily coverage of the Aafia Siddiqui trial at the Cageprisoners website.
Read more: here
MANY ATTENDING OR OBSERVING COURT EVENTS ARE DECLARING POLICIES UNCONSTITUTIONAL and at the least detrimental to US Federal Court's intrinsic responsibility to be fair and objective to people of multi-ethnic backgrounds. Many who are not comfortable giving their signatures and not knowing where they are going or how they might be used.
Shahid spoke with a noted lawyer who said that in his 40 years as a practicing attorney he had never heard of a trial in which visitors were told they had to provide their names and ID numbers to get into a trial, and to his mind this was unconstitutional.
INTRODUCTORY ( Note of Witness) to the policy of requiring I. D.s and signatures before admitting to a courtroom.
Friday morning in the Federal Courtroom, just after I was able finally to get through the entry processing and go upstairs to the 21st floor B, give my I.D. and sign my name and go through the same process again with electronic devices, a lawyer from International Justice Center (IJC) (not IAC as in yesterday's report) was asked to do the same. She did so but said clearly, "This is not constitutional, you know."
Shortly thereafter, Comrade Shahid came to the 21st floor room B Entrance as well and was asked to do the same. To this request he said, " I refuse to do so. This is unconstitutional thus it's not a fair trial for Aafia Siddiqui. I will not participate in an unfair trial. Tell your seniors that the people don't like this. I'm announcing my protest and I'm leaving. You are witnesses."
The three of us, the IJC lawyer, Mr. Shahid and I all said very clearly to the staff processing us that we understood they were merely trying to do their job and not angry at them yet extremely concerned about the policies that had been set into place.
After which, Mr. Shahid went to the "overflow room" but the same request for signatures and I.D. met him there and again he said that he refused. His full statement is below.
We are quite concerned about the effect on the jury of such a showing as if the observers and journalists are criminal suspects. Also such a policy scares away many people who would otherwise come.
Pakistan USA Freedom Forum is asking everyone to support our demand that Dr. Aafia Siddiqui receive a fair trial, currently under way in New York's Federal District Court, 500 Pearl St., Room 21B, before Judge Richard Berman. (As we understand the facts***) never before have court officials harassed supporters by taking names and I.D. numbers before they entered a courtroom. Such intimidation denies Dr. Aafia a free, fair and open trial. We protest this abuse.
On Thursday, January 21, when Shahid Comrade went to enter the courtroom of Judge Berman, the marshal asked him, as he had asked everyone else entering that courtroom, to show him his ID so he could write down his name and number. Comrade refused, and stated that this was against the Constitution of the United States. The marshal stated that this was the order that he had been given by the Chief Marshal. Comrade found noted civil-rights attorney Norman Siegel, who was in the court building on another matter and told him what had happened. Together, they went to the Chief Marshal of the New York Federal District Court, on the fourth floor of 500 Pearl St. After the Marshal asked Comrade to remain outside, Siegel spoke to the Chief Marshal asking him to rescind the order. The Chief Marshal told Siegel he would get back to him. So far, this order has not been lifted.
Afterwards, Siegel told Comrade that, in his 40 years as a practicing attorney, he has never heard of a trial in which visitors were told they had to provide their names and ID numbers to get into a trial, and to his mind this was unconstitutional. Pakistan USA Freedom Forum wishes to thank Norman Siegel for all his assistance in his defense of civil rights and the Constitution.
Pakistan USA Freedom Forum is asking all organizations concerned with human, civil and constitutional rights, political parties and media to demand fair and open courts, insisting that Judge Berman Federal District Court halt this intimidating attempt to deny justice to Dr. Aafia Siddiqui.
We would also like to thank all those who gave support once they heard that officials were ignoring the Constitution. We particularly want to thank Sara Flounders, one of the leaders of Workers World Party, and all those who attended her talk last Friday who stood up and applauded the immigrants and Muslims who stood up for the cause of civil rights in the United States. We will never walk away from sacrifices for the cause of humanity.
Pakistan USA Freedom Forum demands that Judge Richard Berman and the Courts:
ONE: halt the collection of supporters' names and I.D. numbers,
TWO: publicly identify why this information was collected,
THREE: whether this information was shared with any other agencies and
FOUR: destroy any data collected in the process.
An end to this intimidating practice will help ensure a fair and open trial for Dr. Aafia Siddiqui and all people brought before the court. We ask President Obama to send the New York Chief Marshal, and all marshals in the Federal Courts, to a refresher course on the Constitution of the United States
Dr. Muhammad Shafique
Mr. Shahid Comrade
Pakistan USA Freedom Forum
Ph: (+1) 917 280 0840
See also more on these issues at International Action Center...Go here
ADDED NOTE (added by blogger, Connie) ; After the trial day, Monday, and after the jury had been taken from the courtroom, Judge Berman went through a long explanation regarding the need for extra security during this trial - including the signing of names and the showing of I.D.s as well as the writing down of the same. The explanation was largely read and partly spoken with the use of legal language and little to no translation of the same to the non-legal observers.
I submit judging by observation and discussion later as well as by my own experience, that many of us present in the courtroom did not hear at all clearly what Judge Berman was saying - nor the part that we did was not clear if meant to be understood by observers since this is declared public and we are directly affected by the determinations related to those admitted. Also one observation was that much of what Judge Berman spoke was inaudible to many and yet the trial is a public trial.
The fact that Judge Berman named these same incidents over and over again gave the impression there were many items being addressed when there were not. Perhaps speaking in legalese and using repition may sound authoritive, yet I submit these are not ways to win trust with observers who for one reason or the other are looking to this trial for clarity, truth and a clearly democratic, constitutional process.
Following is another related report which seems for the moment to be ignored by all involved in the court proceedings - perhaps for necessary reasons?