The high drama of that day’s proceedings revolved around the question of whether or not U.S. District Judge Richard Berman would grant Aafia’s repeated demand to take the stand in her own defense.
Aafia’s lawyers appeared to be animate in their opposition to her taking the stand, while the prosecution appeared (on the surface) to be in favor of Aafia being entitled to her Fifth Amendment right. Her brother (Muhammad) was apprehensive about her taking the stand, leaning more in favor of her following the advice of her lawyers. Even Pakistani Ambassador Hussain Haqqani became involved. During a short visit he was allowed with the defendant, he reportedly advised Aafia to follow the advice of her lawyers.
Aafia’s response to this collective concern was that she would make istiqara (a supplication to ALLAH Almighty for guidance on the matter); and in the end Aafia Siddiqui would be heard.
While I understood the reservations of those who were concerned about Aafia taking the stand (given all that she had already been through), I fully supported our sister’s right to be heard, and was guardedly optimistic about the potential outcome. More than anything, however, I knew that Aafia – like two young Muslim men in an Atlanta courtroom, and several young Muslim men in a New Jersey courtroom (who were eager, but manipulated into not taking the stand in their own defense not long ago) – needed to be heard! Aafia needed to have her day in court!
The process began with a preliminary (test) examination, with Aafia taking the witness stand in the absence of the jury – a kind of hearing within a hearing – to see how she would respond to that type of intensive and focused examination. After the judge determined that she was capable enough to enjoy her constitutional “right” to take the stand in her own defense, the jury was brought back into the courtroom, and it was on. (And what truly spectacular courtroom drama it turned out to be!)
The following summary is based on my notes from January 28th
Open court proceedings began late in the morning, due to a number of procedural issues that needed to be addressed behind closed doors. Once proceedings began, it did so with the judge explaining Aafia’s right, and the possible risks, of her taking the stand. There was extensive discussion about the course and extent of cross examination should Aafia decide to testify.
The government’s support of Aafia taking the stand was full of irony, given the fact that the government had repeatedly argued (during pre-trial and trial proceedings) that Aafia should not even be allowed to remain in the courtroom, because of her periodic outbursts and “uncontrollable” nature (in their view).
The First Witness
It was noted by the government that over a 12 day period, while Aafia was at the Craig Field Hospital at Bagram for critical care medical treatment, following her near fatal re-arrest in July 2008, two FBI agents had continuous access to the injured prisoner (a male and female who did not identify themselves to Aafia as FBI personnel).
FBI Special Agent Angela Sercer was the first to testify. She spoke about how she interrogated Aafia on a daily basis for the purpose of gathering “intelligence.” She described how she sat with Aafia for an average of eight hours each day, and of how they discussed the shooting incident and other related matters (discussions she said Aafia would always initiate). Agent Sercer prepared written reports, and disclosed during testimony that Aafia was never Mirandized (i.e. informed of her rights to remain silent and consult with an attorney before questioning), nor did she have access to a Pakistani consular official.
According to Sercer, Aafia mostly enjoyed her discussions with this special agent. Sercer maintained that she treated Aafia with respect and did her best to respond to Aafia’s needs – i.e. when she requested food, water, bathroom access, or when she requested a Qur’an and a scarf, or when she would complain that the “soft restraints” were too tight and needed to be loosened, etc.
Between 7/19/-8/4/08, FBI agents were posted inside and outside Aafia’s room 24 hours a day, ostensibly to insure that Aafia could not escape and to provide security for hospital personnel – despite the “soft restraints” which secured her hands and legs to the bed (in what Aafia later described as very uncomfortable positions) during her stay at this field hospital in Bagram.
The second witness
The second agent to testify was FBI Special Agent Bruce Kamerman, who had reportedly been assigned on 7/21/08. He claimed that Aafia made numerous statements, that she seemed lucid and to not be in much pain. He also insisted that there was never any coercion. He testified that Aafia had no visitors, and that no Afghan staff attended to her. He also claimed that there were occasions when Aafia would declare that her children were dead, and other times when she stated they might be living with her sister.
Following the testimony of the second agent, a hearing within the trial was held so that Aafia could give testimony (in the absence of the jury).
Aafia testified that when she first realized she was in a hospital she had tubes everywhere. She was in a narcotic state resulting from the administration of powerful drugs (one or two she could remember by name, others she couldn’t). She recalled how her hands and feet were secured uncomfortably apart. She said the agents never identified themselves as FBI, except for “Mr. Hurley.”
Aafia accused Agent Bruce Kamerman of subjecting her to “psychological torture.” She accused him of being immodest whenever he was present and medical personnel needed to examine her, and complained of how he would stand right outside the bathroom door whenever she needed to use it. She testified that Kamerman would sometimes come in the middle of the night (when he wasn’t supposed to be there), and encourage the person assigned to take a break. Aafia said she remained in a sleep deprived state as a result of his frequent presence.
During this period she never had any contact with family, nor with any Pakistani authorities. She thought that [FBI Agent] “Angela was just a nice person.”
During the cross examination Aafia spoke about being “tortured in the secret prison,” and of how she kept asking about her children. She insisted that she never opined that they might be with her sister.
(I should note here that Aafia’s testimony was consistent with information contained on an audio CD that we’ve produced on the case. On the CD, former Bagram and Guantanamo prisoner Moazam Beg recounts how the un-identified female prisoner at Bagram, known only as Prisoner 650, was identified as a Pakistani national who appeared to be in her 30s, and as someone who had been torn away from her children and who didn’t know where they were.)
Aafia also testified that she had multiple gunshot wounds; and that in addition to the gunshot wounds she had a debilitating back condition (resulting from being thrown on the floor after she was shot), persistent headaches, and an intubation tube. She also emphasized that she was in and out of consciousness; and, at times, mentally incoherent.
The video testimony of an Afghan security chief (by the name of Qadeer) was received by the court. While I had to briefly leave the court, and missed this testimony, it is my understanding that what Qadeer had to say about events at the Afghan National Police station in Ghazni – leading up to the shooting of Aafia – contradicted the testimony of a number of the government’s main witnesses.
Later in the afternoon, when Aafia testified in front of the jury, the overflow courtroom (where I was seated) was full of observers. The majority appeared to be non-Muslims in professional attire – a probable mix of court and Justice Department personnel (including interns), law students, and a few journalists. I would estimate that roughly a quarter of the observers in this overflow courtroom were made up of solid Aafia supporters – and yet the reaction to the testimony at times was both interesting and edifying.
When I returned to the courtroom (about 10 minutes into Aafia’s testimony), she was describing her academic work leading up to the achievement of her PhD at Brandeis University. She testified that after completing her doctorate studies she taught in a school, and that her interest was in cultivating the capabilities of dyslexic and other special needs children.
During this line of questioning, the monstrous image that the government had carefully crafted (with considerable support from mainstream media) of this petite young woman, had begun to be deconstructed. The real Dr. Aafia Siddiqui – the committed muslimah, the humanity-loving nurturer and educator, the gentle yet resolute mujahid for truth and justice – began to emerge with full force.
Testimony then proceeded to the events of July 17-18, 2008. Aafia testified that she remembered being concerned about the whereabouts of her missing children. She also remembered a press conference in an Afghan compound.
She testified about being tied down to a bed until she vigorously protested, and was later untied and left behind a curtain. She later heard American and Afghan voices on the other side of the curtain, and concluded that they [Americans] wanted to return her to a “secret prison” again. She testified about how she had pleaded with the Afghans not to let the Americans take her away.
She testified about peaking through the curtain into the part of the room where Afghans and Americans were talking, and how when a startled American soldier noticed her, he jumped up and yelled that the prisoner had gotten loose, and shot her in the stomach. She described how she was also shot in the side by a second person. She also described how after falling back onto the bed in the room, she was violently thrown to the floor and lost consciousness.
She testified that she was in and out of consciousness, and vaguely recalled being placed on a stretcher, a helicopter, and receiving a blood transfusion – which she protested, drawing laughter in the courtroom when she recounted how she had “threatened to sue” her medical attendants if they gave her a blood transfusion. During this testimony, Aafia animatedly rejected the allegation that she picked up a [M-4] rifle and fired it (or that she even attempted to do so).
The Cross Examination
This is the time when every eye and every ear was riveted on the proceedings. It was the moment that Aafia’s defense attorneys, her brother, and a host of Muslim and non-Muslim supporters (seated within both courtrooms) dreaded. It was also the point in the proceedings that had the prosecution salivating for what opportunities would come there way – or so they thought!
Cross examination began with Aafia revisiting the degrees that she received at MIT and Brandeis universities. She acknowledged that she took a required course in molecular biology; but emphasized that her work was in cognitive neuroscience. When questioned on whether she had ever done any work with chemicals, her response was, “only when required.”
(This opening line of questioning was significant for its prejudice producing potential in the minds of jurors. While Aafia is not being charged with any terrorism conspiracy counts, the threat of terrorism has been the pink elephant in the room throughout this troubling case!)
The prosecutor attempted to draw a sinister correlation between Aafia and her [then] husband being questioned by the FBI in 2002, and leaving the U.S. a week later. Aafia noted that there wasn’t anything sinister about the timing; they had already planned to make that trip home before the FBI visit. To underscore this point, she noted how she later returned to the U.S. to attempt to find work in her field.
One of the most heart-wrenching moments in the cross-examination was when Aafia described how she was briefly re-united with a young boy in Ghazni (July 2008) who could have been her oldest son. She spoke of how she was mentally in a daze at that time, and had not seen any of her children in five years. As a result she could not definitively (than or now) determine if that was indeed her son, Ahmed.
When asked whether she had incriminating documents in her possession on the day she was arrested, Aafia testified that the bag in her possession on the day that she was re-detained was given to her. She didn’t know what was in the bag, nor could she definitively determine if the handwriting on some of the documents was hers or not. She also mentioned on a number of occasions (to the chagrin of the prosecutor) how she was repeatedly tortured by her captors at Bagram.
She was also questioned on whether she had taken a pistol course at a firing range while a student in Boston. Her initial reaction was that she did not have any recollection of taking such a course, and when pressed further, answered “No.” When the prosecutor continued to press the issue (infusing sinister motivations in the process), Aafia admonished the prosecutor in the strong, clear voice that was heard throughout her testimony: “You can’t build a case on hate; you should build it on fact!”
Aafia testified that all she was thinking about at the time of her re-arrest in Ghazni, was “getting out of that room and not being sent back to the secret prison.” While discussions were going on between the Afghans and Americans, Aafia was searching for a way out. She repeated her assertion that she startled one of the soldiers who hollered, “She’s free! – before shooting her.
Aafia also elicited an approving reaction in the courtroom when she opined, in reaction to the government’s narration of events, she could not believe a soldier would be so irresponsible as to leave his M4 rifle on the floor unsecured.
In response to government questioning she again took the opportunity to strongly rebuke Agent Kamerman, while rejecting most of his testimony revisited by the prosecutor.
Aafia spoke highly of a number of nurses (and a doctor) who took care of her at Bagram. There was one nurse in particular that Aafia promised to mention favorably if she ever wrote a book. She then produced laughter in the courtroom again when she stated, “Since I don’t think I’m going to write a book, I’m mentioning her now.”
One of the most powerful and revealing moments in the testimony was when she spoke about the people who systematically abused her in the “secret prison” – denouncing them as “fake Americans, not real Americans.” (Because of the way their actions both violated and damaged America’s image!)
She spoke again, under cross examination, about the strong pain medication she was on, and some of the effects this medication had on her.
Aafia also mentioned how she was instructed to translate and copy something from a book while she was secretly imprisoned. During the course of this testimony which repeatedly drew the ire of an increasingly frustrated prosecutor, Aafia noted how she can now understand how people can be framed (for crimes they are not guilty of).
At this point in the proceedings, the judge ordered a brief recess. Clearly the government had thought that they would be able to control and manipulate Aafia in manner that would work in their favor; this ended up being a MAJOR MISCALCULATION. The purpose of this break in the proceedings, in my humble opinion, was to allow the prosecutor to regain her composure, and consult with fellow prosecutors for a more effective line of attack.
When testimony resumed, Aafia spoke of how she was often forced-fed information from one group of persons at the secret prison, and then made to regurgitate the same information before a different group of inquisitors. While it was presented to her as a type of “game,” she spoke of how she would be “punished” if she got something wrong.
On defense cross, Aafia was shown pictures and asked to identify herself in them. She reluctantly did so, but with a little levity, citing how unattractive and immodest the photos were.
I could not see the photos from the overflow courtroom where I was sitting, but I assume that these were the photos of an un-covered, emaciated and emotionally disfigured Aafia Siddiqui – after her horrific ordeal at the hands of American terrorists.
A final note: I sincerely believe that Aafia Siddiqui’s time spent on the witness stand on January 28th was a cathartic experience for her – but one that the prosecution, in retrospect, now deeply regrets. For any truly objective and fair-minded person who witnessed that day’s proceedings, the U.S Government’s case against Aafia Siddiqui was exposed for what it always was…a horrific and profoundly tragic miscarriage of justice!
The struggle continues…
El-Hajj Mauri’ Saalakhan