Joanne Mariner

The Strange and Terrible Case of Aafia Siddiqui

By JOANNE MARINER
Monday, Sept. 08, 2008

Everyone agrees that she's a 36-year-old mother of three young children. But while the New York Post calls her the "Al Qaeda mom," and federal prosecutors claim that when she was arrested in July she was carrying a bag packed with chemicals and handwritten notes about a "mass casualty attack," Aafia Siddiqui's lawyers say she's a victim.

"This woman has been tortured and she needs help," explained Elizabeth Fink, one of her defense counsel, at an August 11 court hearing.

Siddiqui disappeared in Pakistan in March 2003. Together with her three children - then aged 6 years, 5 years, and 6 months - she reportedly left her parents' home in Karachi to visit her uncle in Islamabad, but never arrived. Last July, more than five years later, she mysteriously reappeared in US custody in Afghanistan. Based on their interviews with her, and a pattern of similar cases, her lawyers claim that she has spent the last five years as a secret captive of Pakistani or American authorities.

Siddiqui's oldest child, Ahmed, was found with her in Afghanistan. The whereabouts of her two younger children are unknown.

Disappearance from Karachi, Reappearance in Ghazni

The name Aafia Siddiqui first came to public attention on March 18, 2003, when the FBI issued an alert requesting information about her. Siddiqui, a US-educated neuroscientist, was then living in Pakistan. The US government later alleged that Siddiqui was linked to al Qaeda suspects Majid Khan and Ali 'Abd al-'Aziz Ali (also known as Ammar al-Baluchi), and news outlets reported that she had acted as an al Qaeda fixer.

Majid Khan and Ali 'Abd al-'Aziz Ali both disappeared from Karachi at almost precisely the same time as Siddiqui did. They did not reappear until September 2006, after their transfer to Guantanamo from CIA custody. For more than three years, they had been secretly held by the CIA or one of the CIA's proxies. Like many others, they had been arrested by the Pakistani intelligence services and handed over to CIA as part of the "war on terror."

When Siddiqui disappeared, on approximately March 28, 2003, the Pakistani papers mentioned reports that she had been "picked up in Karachi by an intelligence agency" and "shifted to an unknown place for questioning." A year later, in a follow-up story, the Pakistani papers quoted a Pakistani government spokesman who said that she had been handed over to US authorities in 2003.

But unlike Khan and a number of others, Siddiqui did not reappear in US custody in 2006; nor was she heard from in 2007. It was not until July 2008, after her case had started gaining political notoriety, that she suddenly reappeared in Afghanistan.

According to the official US account, Afghan police arrested Aafia Siddiqui and her son in Ghazni, Afghanistan, on July 17, 2008. The federal indictment against Siddiqui states that the Afghan police officers who arrested her found suspicious items in her handbag, including notes referring "to the construction of 'dirty bombs,' chemical and biological weapons, and other explosives." Siddiqui's lawyers reject this account, suggesting that the charges against Siddiqui are a sham.

US federal prosecutors allege that the day after her arrest, while still in Afghan custody, she grabbed a gun from the floor and fired it at a team of US soldiers and federal intelligence agents who were visiting the Afghan police compound where she was being held. Nobody was killed in the scuffle, but Siddiqui was injured. In August, she was charged with assaulting and trying to kill US officials. She is currently in US federal custody in New York City, awaiting arraignment.

An Unlikely Story

Siddiqui's story seems improbable, no matter which version you believe. If you trust the US story, you have to imagine that Siddiqui succeeded in hiding for more than five years -- despite the intense interest of US and Pakistani intelligence services - then decided to pop up in Afghanistan with an all-purpose terrorism kit, and then, upon her arrest, decided to take advantage of a security lapse to blast away at US soldiers and FBI agents. More than the al Qaeda mom, as the New York Post dubs her, she would have to be al Qaeda's Angelina Jolie.

The claim that she was hidden away in secret detention all these years might seem equally unlikely. But when one realizes that the people she was allegedly linked to were themselves held in secret detention, and that the Pakistani intelligence services were covertly arresting dozens of people in Karachi during this period, the story gains plausibility.

Because Siddiqui's disappearance fit neatly into a larger pattern, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and several other human rights groups included Siddiqui on a 2007 list of people suspected to have been in CIA custody.

Although the US government has denied that the United States held Siddiqui during the period of her disappearance, the federal court that is hearing her case should facilitate an in-depth investigation of her lawyers' claims. The possibility that Siddiqui was held for five years in secret detention before her official arrest is not only deeply relevant to her mental state at the time of the alleged crimes, it goes to the integrity of the court's jurisdiction.

11-Year-Old Ahmed Siddiqui

Besides the question of where Siddiqui herself has been all of the years, an even more pressing question is where are her children?

To date, the whereabouts of the two youngest children - who should now be about 5 and 10 years old - are unknown. But Siddiqui's oldest son, Ahmed, an 11-year-old with American citizenship, is in Afghan custody.

According to an Afghan Interior Ministry official quoted in the Washington Post, Ahmed Siddiqui was held briefly by the Interior Ministry when he was arrested with his mother in July, and then he was transferred to the custody of the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS), the country's intelligence agency. The NDS is notorious for its brutal treatment of detainees.

Under Afghan and international law, Ahmed Siddiqui is too young to be treated as a criminal suspect. Under Afghanistan's Juvenile Code, the minimum age of criminal responsibility is 13. And according to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which monitors the treatment of children globally, a minimum age of criminal responsibility below age 12 is "not ... internationally acceptable."

Human Rights Watch has called upon the Afghan authorities to release Ahmed Siddiqui to members of his biological family, who reside in Pakistan, or to a child welfare organization that can provide proper care until he is reunited with his family. As Human Rights Watch has emphasized, an 11-year-old should never have been transferred to the custody of the NDS.

"Treatment Fairly Characterized as Horrendous"

Siddiqui's lawyers say that she is a physical and psychological wreck. Her nose has reportedly been broken; she is deathly pale, and her mental state is extremely fragile. Siddiqui refused to attend her most recent court hearing, unhappy with the prospect of an invasive strip search, but at an early hearing she seemed in obvious pain.

"She is a mother of three who has been through several years of detention, whose interrogators were Americans, [and] who endured treatment fairly characterized as horrendous," said Elaine Sharp, one of Siddiqui's lawyers. As this case progresses, in the coming weeks and months, the court should ensure that the public learns the truth of these claims.


Joanne Mariner is an attorney with Human Rights Watch in New York.