US protesters demand release and repatriation of Aafia Siddiqui

Calling the Pakistani neuroscientist a victim of US ‘war on terror’, protesters want Islamabad to seek her immediate release.

Protesters outside the Pakistan Consulate in New York on October 20, 2021 [Courtesy of Mahtab Khan]

Boston, United States – Dozens of protesters and human rights activists are calling on the Pakistani government to work to end the continued imprisonment of Pakistani neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui in the United States.

Carrying pictures and banners, the protesters gathered outside the Pakistan Consulate in New York on Wednesday to decry Siddiqui’s situation and urge the Pakistani government to actively seek her immediate release and repatriate her.

“Free, Free Aafia,” the protesters shouted in unison.

The rally was part of a series of protests organised by a coalition of more than 20 local and national human rights and religious groups, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

Similar protests have been planned in Boston and Washington, DC, in the coming weeks.

Who is Aafia Siddiqui?

Siddiqui, a US-educated-Pakistani national, was charged with attempting to kill US soldiers and FBI agents during interrogation after her arrest in 2008 in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province.

She was flown to the US and sentenced to 86 years in prison after a New York court found the 49-year-old mother of three guilty of attempted murder and assault in 2010.

Siddiqui earned her undergraduate degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1995 and a doctorate in neurosciences from Brandeis University in Boston before moving back to Pakistan in 2003.

According to her family, Siddiqui and her three children were abducted by the Pakistani intelligence agencies immediately after her return.

In 2008, she appeared in Afghanistan and was detained by the Afghan police, under suspicion of planning a suicide bomb attack and being in possession of notes on how to make chemical weapons and dirty bombs, accusations denied by the family and lawyers.

Currently, she is being held at Federal Medical Centre (FMC) prison in Fort Worth, Texas.

‘Victim of US war on terror’

Mosaab Sadeia, a 21-year-old member of the Islamic Leadership Council of New York and one of the organisers of the New York protest, said Siddiqui is a victim of the US’s so-called “war on terror” and “unjustly” imprisoned.

“She is a prisoner of conscience, a political prisoner and victim of the US war on terror. We are here to tell the Pakistani government to stand up for its citizen and secure her freedom,” Sadeia told Al Jazeera.

Author and anti-war activist Sarah Flounders has followed Siddiqui’s case for more than a decade and believes she is innocent.

“She is a victim of secret rendition. I attended her court trial. It was just a show trial and a theatre of war on terror,” Flounders told Al Jazeera over the telephone.

“The US government should immediately free her and reunite her with her children.”

Activist Sarah Flounders addressing the protesters demanding the release of Aafia Siddiqui [Courtesy of Mahtab Khan]

The protesters also accused the prison officials of treating Siddiqui inhumanely. In July, she was attacked by a fellow inmate with a mug of hot liquid and later locked in solitary confinement.

“It resulted in burns around her eyes and could have damaged them permanently. There were visible bruises on her arm,” Siddiqui’s lawyer Marwa Elbially told Al Jazeera.

Kristie A Breshears, spokesperson for the Bureau of Prisons, confirmed to Al Jazeera that they are aware of the incident but declined to provide more details.

“We are aware of the reported incident, which is the subject of pending litigation. For privacy, safety, and security reasons, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) does not discuss information on any individual inmate’s conditions of confinement nor do we comment on pending litigation or matters subject to legal proceedings,” Breshears wrote in an emailed response to Al Jazeera.

‘Daughter of the Nation’

In Pakistan, Siddiqui’s case has attracted enormous support from across the political divide.

In 2018, the Pakistani Senate unanimously passed a resolution dubbing her “Daughter of the Nation”. On several occasions, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has extended his support for negotiating Siddiqui’s release with the US government.

In July 2019, after meeting with the then US President Donald Trump, Khan told the media that releasing Shakeel Afridi in exchange for Siddiqui could be a possibility in the future.

Afridi is a Pakistani surgeon allegedly recruited by the CIA to track and trace Osama bin Laden, eventually leading to bin Laden’s killing.

In 2012, Afridi was sentenced to 33 years in prison under a colonial-era treason law by a Pakistani court. His appeal is still pending before a high court in Peshawar.

Maliha Shahid, spokesperson for the Pakistani embassy in Washington, said Siddiqui’s case is still a priority for the government.

“Her detention and conditions of incarceration remain a subject of discussion between the governments of Pakistan and the US. Our consul general in Houston pays regular visits to Dr Aafia to ensure her wellbeing,” Shahid told Al Jazeera.

Protesters in US hold placards seeking release and repatriation of Aafia Siddiqui [Courtesy of Mahtab Khan]

Growing support for release in US

Over the past few months, calls in the US for release and repatriation of Siddiqui have become more intense.

Last month, the Boston chapter of United Steelworkers, a labour union, passed a resolution calling on the US government to free Siddiqui and allow the visit of independent medical practitioners from Doctors Without Borders (MSF) to evaluate her mental and physical injuries.

“This is one of the most egregious and outrageous cases that shows the US government’s violation of human rights and international law. We can’t go anywhere on the globe and kidnap anyone,” Stevan Kirschbaum, the vice president of the union, told Al Jazeera.

“Our resolution aims to highlight and bring the case of injustice done to Aafia Siddiqui to living rooms across the US,” he added.

Imam Omar Suleiman, a prominent American Muslim scholar and civil rights leader protested in front of the FMC prison last month to bring attention to Siddiqui’s incarceration.

“She is a woman who has been abducted, tortured, and wrongfully imprisoned. Nothing about her prosecution makes sense, and there is no legal basis for her being held in the United States,” Suleiman told Al Jazeera.

“She deserves to be freed and returned home to live quietly in dignity with her family rather than in a dungeon in Texas.”

Source: Al Jazeera