Thursday, January 28, 2010

Aafia Siddiqui: Takes Stand in Trial

At a hearing Thursday, U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman in Manhattan said Aafia Siddiqui, who was trained as a scientist in the U.S., can take the stand despite objections by her lawyers.

"I've determined to allow her to testify if she wishes," the judge said.

The judge also said prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney's office in Manhattan, during cross-examination, will be able to use statements she allegedly made to Federal Bureau of Investigation agents while recovering from a gunshot wound to the abdomen.

Berman determined the statements were given voluntarily and knowingly by Siddiqui despite her being "clearly uncomfortable and in some distress." She was under the watch of the FBI at the time and in restraints at a hospital in Afghanistan.

Aafia Siddiqui, 37, is accused of grabbing a U.S. warrant officer's rifle while she was detained for questioning in July 2008 in Afghanistan's Ghazni province and firing at FBI agents and military personnel as she was wrestled to the ground.

None of them were injured, but Siddiqui, who the U.S. government has accused of links with al Qaeda, was shot. She is charged with attempted murder, assault and other crimes and faces life in prison if convicted.

Siddiqui, who may testify on Thursday against the advice of her attorneys, hardly fits the image of a gun-slinging militant.

A tiny, frail-looking woman, she was trained in neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brandeis University.

The case raises questions that may never be aired in court and may never be answered. Was Siddiqui held in a U.S. secret prison as her supporters claim? Where are her two youngest children? Does she have ties to al Qaeda?

"We believe that this woman was kidnapped with her children in March of 2003 and that she has been held in custody by either Pakistani authorities or Americans in any of their dark side areas," one of Siddiqui's original lawyers, Elizabeth Fink, said in 2008.

The trial, which began last week at Manhattan federal court, is centered on the shooting itself and evidence about the time leading up to it is inadmissible.

"Since I'll never get a chance to speak, if you were in a secret prison ... where children were tortured," Siddiqui yelled out on the opening day of trial before being led from the courtroom. "I was never planning to bomb" New York.


Siddiqui and her three children disappeared in the Pakistani port city of Karachi in 2003, where she was living at the time, her family and Pakistani human rights groups say.

They believe she was held at Bagram, the main U.S. base in neighboring Afghanistan, and that she was raped and tortured, although they do not say what evidence they have for that.

They say Siddiqui reappeared in July 2008 when she was arrested along with her eldest son, who is now a teenager, near an Afghan police facility in Ghazni.

That son is now living with Siddiqui's sister in Pakistan. The whereabouts of her two youngest children are unknown.

The U.S. government has painted a different picture.

In 2004, Siddiqui was described by the FBI as an "al Qaeda operative and facilitator who posed a clear and present danger to America." But the charges against Siddiqui do not mention the group.

Witnesses said at the time of her arrest in 2008 Siddiqui was carrying containers of unidentified chemicals and notes referring to mass-casualty attacks and New York landmarks such as the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, Wall Street and the Brooklyn Bridge.

"It's not going to get addressed -- at this trial," said Tina Foster, executive director of the International Justice Network who has attended the trial with Siddiqui's brother, Muhammad Siddiqui.

"The case is attempted murder in this room, that's all the (lawyers) are able to address."


Last July, U.S. District Judge Richard Berman ruled Siddiqui was fit to stand trial, saying she "understands the nature of the charges and can assist counsel with her defense," but her mental state has repeatedly become an issue.

Siddiqui has interrupted witness testimony repeatedly and has been removed from the courtroom.

During jury selection, she yelled out that Zionists should be kept off the panel.

On another day -- this time out of earshot of jurors -- she demanded a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama, insisting she could broker peace between the United States and the Taliban.

On Tuesday, she waved dramatically to the court, including the jury, and said, "I'm going to boycott from now on. I'm not coming here again. Bye everyone."

This week, her defense lawyers appealed to Berman to block Siddiqui from testifying, saying she suffers from "severe mental illness," may be suicidal and will likely fill her testimony with "irrational and delusional outbursts."

Reporting by Edith Honan

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