The silence of Aafia Siddiqui
The Pakistani prisoner dubbed ‘Lady al-Qaeda’ has not been heard from for a year, raising concerns about her well-being.
It has been almost a year since anyone has heard from Aafia Siddiqui, the Pakistani neuroscientist, dubbed by some as ” Lady al-Qaeda “, who is incarcerated at a prison medical centre in the US state of Texas.
Siddiqui was arrested in Afghanistan in 2008 and flown to the United States, where she was sentenced to 86 years in prison for the attempted murder of two US soldiers. But how she came to be in Afghanistan is largely a mystery.
Born in Karachi, Pakistan, Aafia Siddiqui moved to the United States for school in 1990 and left for Pakistan in 2003, after attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and marrying a Pakistani man in Boston.
Shortly after returning to Pakistan, Siddiqui disappeared while en route to Islamabad with her three children – her family members say they believe she was abducted by the Pakistani intelligence agencies.
Little is known about what happened to her until she surfaced five years later in Ghazni, Afghanistan, when Afghan police arrested her on suspicions of being a suicide bomber.
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As FBI agents and US military personnel arrived to interrogate her, they said she gained control of a rifle belonging to one of the army officers. In the struggle that ensued, the service member fired on Siddiqui , hitting her at least once in the torso.
For the next few days, Siddiqui underwent surgery, after which she was transferred to a prison in the United States – where she has been ever since.
A family ‘mystified’
The last that was heard from the 43-year-old came in July 2014, when, in a surprising turn of events, Siddiqui withdrew what would likely have been the final appeal against her conviction.
In the letter she wrote to Judge Richard Berman, she stated that she had no faith in the American legal system and that she refused “to participate in this system of total injustice that has punished and tortured me repeatedly”.
Her family and lawyers fear the worst.
“Letters have not gotten through,” said Stephen Downs , her new defence attorney, who took over from Tina M Foster in January.
“Her family is mystified as to what is happening. There is a concern that she may not be alive,” Downs told Al Jazeera.
The alleged jihadi has a pattern of looking askance at her legal team, which is paid for by the Pakistani government. Ever since her trial began, Siddiqui has gone through a number of lawyers, leery of some due to their Jewish ancestry.
Siddiqui’s sister, Fowzia, a Harvard-trained neurologist now living in Karachi, has been relentlessly heading a campaign seeking her sister’s release, but she said she is now losing hope.
Fowzia spoke to her younger sibling over the phone for the last time in April 2014.
“Then Aafia had agreed to the appeal,” said Fowzia.
“I remember her telling us that she would never refuse any chance to talk to her family or anyone who could help her. She said we have no idea what goes on at that prison. The doctors are wolves disguised as sheep,” Fowzia said.
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Further unnerving the family were reports from two consular visits that the Pakistani embassy made to the prison this year.
On both occasions, a woman enveloped in a burqa sat with her back to the embassy officers. She refused to show her face and did not utter a word, making it difficult for the embassy officials to say they had definitely met Siddiqui.
“We are being presented with a person who is represented to be her, but we don’t know if that really is the case. Maybe it is not her we are seeing,” suggested Downs.
‘I have met Siddiqui recently’
But US officials dispelled any suspicions of Siddiqui dying in American custody.
“I can confirm that Aafia Siddiqui is still alive,” was the single-sentence email that Patrick Rodenbush, a Justice Department spokesman, sent on July 6, 2015 in response to Al Jazeera’s queries about Siddiqui. Rodenbush divulged no additional details.
Authorities at the Federal Medical Centre, Carswell in Texas, where Siddiqui has been held since 2010, contend that the inmate is free to make her own choices.
“I have met Siddiqui recently,” Patricia Comstock, the public information officer, told Al Jazeera.
“She has the capability to refuse or accept a correspondence, if she wants to. That is all we can disclose about her,” Comstock stated.
Yet, it is still unclear why Siddiqui is unreachable.
Early in the trial process in November 2008, a court psychiatrist said she was hallucinating and unfit to stand trial – a determination the psychiatrist later retracted.
Aafia has now essentially been in solitary confinement for the last 12 years, and tortured for part of that time. And we know that this kind of confinement and torture can do a lot of things to the human mind.
“Aafia has now essentially been in solitary confinement for the last 12 years, and tortured for part of that time. And we know that this kind of confinement and torture can do a lot of things to the human mind,” said Downs.
Siddiqui’s children, who are now 17 and 19 years old, and living with their aunt in Karachi, have never travelled to the US to visit their mother.
The Afghan government handed over Ahmed, Siddiqui’s son, to her sister in Karachi in 2010. The same year, Siddiqui’s daughter, Maryam, mysteriously appeared outside the family home.
Siddiqui’s third child, Suleiman, who was six months old at the time of her disappearance, is still missing and presumed dead.
Siddiqui is a high-profile prisoner whose detention has been a divisive issue.
Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has called her the “daughter of the nation”, requesting her release.
Her name has also repeatedly popped up as a bargaining chip. Armed groups including the Afghan Taliban, al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State have requested her release in exchange for American captives in their custody.
According to 2012 media reports, there have been talks between Pakistani authorities and the United States to swap her for Shakil Afridi , the Pakistani doctor who helped the CIA track down Osama bin Laden, and who is currently serving a 23-year prison sentence.
There are several reasons why the prisoner exchange never materialised. First, the recently drafted extradition treaty between Pakistan and the United States is still awaiting approval from Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Second, Pakistan may not be very keen on giving up Afridi, who is viewed as a scapegoat for the Pakistani military’s ignorance of the US raid on bin Laden’s compound.
In 2012, Pakistan’s then-intelligence chief, Lt-Gen Zaheerul Islam, categorically denied media reports of a possible deal, adding: “Afridi will never be bartered for Dr Aafia Siddiqui.”
US authorities insist that Siddiqui is an al-Qaeda sympathiser, based on evidence that her family and lawyers dispute.
She was said to have been in possession of documents describing how to make explosives and chemical weapons at the time of her arrest. It has also been reported that she married Ammar al-Baluchi, the nephew of al-Qaeda mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, after her divorce in Pakistan.
But her defence team, as well as Siddiqui’s sister, deny the nuptials ever took place and argue that there is a lack of scientific and forensic evidence linking her to the documents and the shooting.
Although all legal proceedings are closed for now, Siddiqui’s new team of lawyers is hoping to bring new evidence by the end of this year and have the case reopened – they declined to go into further detail.
But before that, the defence team has put in a request with the authorities to meet prisoner number 90279-054.
“She does not seem willing or able to meet with us,” said Downs. “We are really not sure what issues are involved, and we are reviewing our options.”