on the world: a view on human rights
Women and children are also prisoners of the US-led “war on terror”. In March 2003, Pakistani neuroscientist Dr Aafia Siddiqui and her three young children “disappeared” in Karachi, on their way to the airport to travel to the capital city Islamabad.
The Pakistani government said she had been arrested. She was not seen again until July 2008. It is widely believed that she had been “rendered” by the Pakistani authorities to the US military and was held by the US at its military prison in Bagram, Afghanistan, along with her children, where she was tortured. The US denies this.
Upon discovery, she was detained in Ghazni, Afghanistan. Conflicting stories exist as to what happened when the US military came to interview her on 18 July 2008; nonetheless she and possibly US military personnel were injured. She was hospitalised and shortly thereafter charged with attempted murder and assault of US nationals and military personnel.
She was taken to the US, and following a two-week trial in 2010 which she refused to take part in, considering it a sham, she was convicted of all the charges against her and sentenced to 86 years in prison. She is currently being held at the Federal Medical Center, Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas, a facility for female prisoners with special medical and mental health needs. An appeal was filed but Dr Siddiqui withdrew it in October 2014. Her family claims she was pressurised into dropping it.
Contrary to widespread media reports, Dr Aafia Siddiqui is not a convicted terrorist: she has never been charged or tried for terrorism offences. Furthermore, although media reports state she was once on an FBI list of “most wanted terrorists”, the agency itself has never included her on any such list.
Dr Aafia Siddiqui’s son Ahmed and daughter Maryam reappeared in 2010 and were reunited with her family. What happened to her youngest son, Suleiman, who was 6 months old when he “disappeared” remains unknown. The case of Dr Aafia Siddiqui, which involves the authorities in Afghanistan and Pakistan as much as it does the US, is shrouded in myths and distortions.
I recently put some questions to her older sister neurologist Dr Fowzia Siddiqui about the current situation.
1 – You live in Karachi with your mother Ismat Siddiqui and Dr Aafia Siddiqui’s children. What has the impact of Aafia’s “disappearance” and imprisonment been on your family, and particularly on her children?
The impact of Aafia’s disappearance along with her three kids has had a huge impact on all of us. This saga has had a special kind of toil of its own. We have endured financial, physical and psychological tribulations. We have seen faces unmasked and are blessed to learn who our true friends are. We have seen the hypocrisy of politicians, the fallacies of the justice system and the tyranny of the USA all in less than a decade.
Aafia’s children have undergone more than you can imagine but as her son put it, “I would not have minded the torture if only I was allowed to cuddle with my mom, why did they tear us apart?”
2 – There was a long period during which there was no communication between Dr Siddiqui and her lawyers. There were concerns that she may have died. What has communication been like since her arrest in 2008?
Communication with Aafia has been sporadic from the outset. When she “disappeared” in 2003 to 2008 it was as though she did not exist and she was dead. There was no information. Then from 2008 until the trial there was very little communication. There were a few brief calls for several minutes filled with static that left an emotional hollow worse than any physical torture.
In 2010 to 2013, the Aafia Movement started a campaign that got people around the world to protest outside US embassies. As a result, the awareness meant that Aafia was given the same amount of time as other prisoners to talk to her family: 300 minutes each month. So we got 10-minute phone calls on a daily basis for about six months, provided that we paid for them. The cost ranged from three to ten dollars per minute. But gradually these calls became rarer and the very rare phone calls we’ve had since 2013 have been disturbing and riddled with confusion and suspicion.
It is sad that even for simple rights such as phone calls or a prayer mat and headscarf, the whole world has to protest and even then the request is granted only partially and there is no remorse or humanity shown.
3 – What can you say about Dr Siddiqui’s current state of physical and mental health?
We have had no meaningful contact with Aafia to be able to comment on this. However, as a neurologist I can say that given the horrific conditions Aafia has had to endure, it is a miracle she is alive and able to converse with others.
4 – Over the past year there has been a number of attacks on your family home. Can you comment on this and who has an interest in intimidating you?
The timings of the attacks were interesting and the message was always a threat to the children. The most recent one, in February, was the evening after a successful “We Love Aafia” walk that thousands of people took part in. During it, we announced that we know that there is evidence of bank accounts where the ransom money was deposited for innocent people sold to the US, including women and children.*
5 – Dr Siddiqui abandoned the appeal procedure in 2014. Earlier this year, the US refused to return her to Pakistan to serve the rest of her sentence there. What efforts are ongoing to persuade the Pakistani authorities to pursue her repatriation?
Just to clarify, it was not the US who refused to return Aafia, it was the Council of Europe who refused to allow Pakistan’s accession to a prisoner transfer treaty. Pakistan has never made an official demand, so the question of refusal has not arisen.
Currently, there is an “86 Days for 86 years” hunger strike camp being held in various cities in Pakistan to try to persuade the government to act. A lawsuit has also been filed in the Islamabad High Court and a contempt of court application was filed in the Sindh High Court as the government failed to act on the 2013 court ruling to bring Aafia home.
6 – What can people around the world do to show support for the campaign for justice for Dr Aafia Siddiqui?
We are grateful to people around the world for their support and their wishes which have given us the strength to bear this ordeal.
We currently have a petition filed in the US for President Obama to commute Aafia’s sentence and let her return home. We need as many letter of support as possible. Sample letters are available at www.aafiamovement.com
Secondly everyone can at the very least like our FB page aafiamovement.official and follow and share updates, follow @aafiamovement on twitter and join twitterstorms so governments can know that there is still huge support.
* Many war on terror prisoners were sold to the US military by the Pakistani and Afghan authorities. In his 2006 memoir, former Pakistani president General Pervez Musharraf admitted that Pakistan had sold hundreds of captured prisoners to the US military. He referred to it as “prize money”.