Dr Aafia Siddiqui sentenced to 86 years in jail
By Masood Haider
NEW YORK: Pakistani neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui was sentenced to 86 years of imprisonment by a US federal court in Manhattan on Thursday, after she was convicted of firing at US troops in Afghanistan while in their custody and other six charges brought against her.
Her lawyers had requested a sentence of 12 years, while prosecutors had pressed for a life sentence.
“It is my judgment that Dr Siddiqui is sentenced to a period of incarceration of 86 years,” said Judge Richard Berman who was in charge of the case.
Dr Aafia Siddiqui denounced the trial and said an appeal would be “a waste of time. I appeal to God.”
When her lawyer Dawn Cardi said in the court that they would appeal the sentence, Dr Siddiqui shouted “they are not my lawyers”.
During the hour-long court proceedings she said she had not been tortured in the US prison in New York but subjected to torture in Afghan prison in Bagram. Hundreds of supporters of Dr Siddiqui had gathered on the court grounds and adjoining areas protesting against her trial and conviction.
It was almost impossible to enter the court premises because of the crowd.
Last Feburary a jury found Dr Siddiqui guilty of seven charges, including two counts of attempted murder. The jury found there wasn’t premeditation in the attempted murder charges.
After the judge announced the sentence, Dr Siddiqui turned to the audience and urged the public to forgive the persons involved in the case and not to take any revenge action.
Prosecutors had alleged that Dr Siddiqui, unbeknownst to some Americans who travelled to Ghazni, was behind a curtain in the second-floor room where they gathered. She burst from behind the curtain, grabbed an American soldier’s rifle and started firing. She was shot in the abdomen by a soldier who returned fire with his sidearm, the prosecutors said.
Dr Siddiqui, who received her graduation degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brandeis University in biology and neuroscience while living in the US between 1991 and June 2002, denied grabbing the weapon or having any familiarity with firearms.
During the trial, she testified that she was simply trying to escape the room and was shot by someone who had seen her. She claimed she was concerned at the time about being transferred to a “secret” prison.
“He saw me and he got scared. He said, ‘she’s free’ or ‘she’s loose,’” she said. On Thursday, Dr Siddiqui, who has previously expressed displeasure with her lawyers and the US legal process, said that she didn’t want the lawyers on her case to file an appeal and that she didn’t want them to take any further action in her case.
Her mental state has loomed large over her trial, with her lawyers claiming she suffers from schizophrenia.
Judge Richard Berman noted on Thursday that experts for the defence and the prosecution gave conflicting opinions about her mental state and that she had been uncooperative with prison psychologists.
During the hearing, Dr Siddiqui raised her hands and shook her head several times when her lawyer Dawn Cardi argued she had a mental illness.
“I do not have any mental illness,” she said.
The judge ordered that she receive periodic mental evaluations while serving her sentence.
“Don’t get angry,” Dr Siddiqui, 38, said in court to her supporters after the sentence was announced. “Forgive Judge Berman.”
Judge Berman responded, saying: “I wish more defendants would feel the way that you do.”
Before the judgment was announced, hundreds of people chanted “Free Aafia!” at a rally in Karachi and some other cities in Pakistan.
During a rambling statement to the court on Thursday, Dr Siddiqui carried only a message of peace. “I do not want any bloodshed. I do not want any misunderstanding. I really want to make peace and end the wars,” she said.
“The important part is that an appeal go forward and that those errors be addressed, because there were a lot of errors in this case,” attorney Charles Swift told journalists after the hearing.
While two of Dr Siddiqui’s children are missing – one presumed dead – one son Mohammad Ahmed, a teenager, now lives with her relatives in Karachi.
The family of Dr Aafia Siddiqui vowed in Karachi on Thursday to launch a ‘movement’ to get her released from jail in America.
Fowzia Siddiqui told reporters all of Pakistan would agitate to get her sister freed. “I was alone eight years ago when I started the campaign to release my sister, but from now on it will be the Aafia movement as the whole nation is with me,” she said.
Around 200 activists from Jamaat-i-Islami and various groups gathered outside Dr Siddiqui’s Karachi home after the sentence. They chanted slogans, including “Down with America” and “Allah-o-Akbar” soon after the news of the sentence was telecast by TV channels.
Fowzia Siddiqui, a medical practitioner, criticised the government for its inability to get her sister released.
“This is a slap on our rulers and all the rulers of the Muslim Ummah. The conviction clearly shows how enslaved our government is. The previous government had sold Aafia once, but the present government has sold her time and again,” she said.
“You (the government) have shown that you are not the representatives of our people, you are traitors who have got the whole nation enslaved,” she cried.
“Aafia will certainly return sooner or later, but no one knows if our rulers will be there or not.”
Later, around 30 angry protesters burned a US flag shouting anti-US and anti-Zardari slogans.