Last month, Aafia Siddiqui, the Pakistani woman jailed in the US, requested Prime Minister Imran Khan to get her released from prison. She is serving a 86-year sentence since 2010. She was tried on charges of trying to kill an American soldier in Afghanistan. (The American prosecutors successfully claimed, in July 2008, that while under interrogation in Ghazni, Afghanistan, Siddiqui grabbed an officer’s rifle and began firing.) She was actually picked up from Karachi and taken to Afghanistan. At the trial, she refused to defend herself and got a long sentence. But the FBI’s real case against her was different which the FBI didn’t want to present at the court because of requirements of secrecy.
The FBI grew suspicious of Aafia Siddiqui and her husband, Muhammad Amjad Khan, while they lived in America because of their donations to Islamic charities. There was also a series of unusual online purchases — $10,000 worth of body armour, night goggles, military books, etc. — which they said were for “Khan to go hunting in Pakistan”. After 9/11, the couple returned to Pakistan. A few weeks later they divorced. Khan told The Guardian that Siddiqui was “so pumped up by jihad”. The Americans were bombing Kabul and she wanted to join the jihad there which Khan got cold feet about. According to him, she maintained a post office box in the US that was later used by Al Qaeda.
Zahid Hussain in The Scorpion’s Tail: The Relentless Rise of Islamic Militants in Pakistan and How it Threatens America (2010) writes: “An MIT-trained Pakistani neuroscientist, Aafia Siddiqui was accused by the United Nations and the United States of being an al Qaeda member and named one of the seven Most Wanted al Qaeda figures by the FBI. She had disappeared from Karachi in March 2003 after the arrest of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, with whom she had close ties. After divorcing her first husband in 2003, she had married a nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was later arrested and sent to the US government’s Guantanamo Bay detention camp. Siddiqui’s family claimed that she and her three children had been illegally detained and interrogated at that time by Pakistani intelligence, likely at the behest of the United States.”
Ten terrorists attacked the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi on October 10, 2009. An hour-long siege ensued that left over a dozen people, including nine soldiers, dead. They presented a list of demands which included release of “a woman named Aafia Siddiqui” from an American jail. The Islamic State agreed to “a prisoner exchange” if Washington would release Aafia Siddiqui. When Washington didn’t bite, they killed the Americans they had picked up in Afghanistan. Siddiqui’s lawyer, Tina M Foster, said there was no forensic evidence linking her to the crime. One member of Siddiqui’s legal team, Elaine Sharp, said: “In my view, [the verdict] is wrong. There was no forensic evidence, and the witness testimony was divergent, to say the least. This was a verdict based on fear, not fact.”
Can there be a swap on Siddiqui? The Americans want Shakeel Afridi who “confirmed” Osama bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan let off from his 33-year sentence pronounced on him by Pakistan in a not very transparent process. But after an ex-ISI chief went public recently on an ISI insider accepting a big bribe and asylum from America in return for “outing” bin Laden, the culpability of Afridi has significantly lessened. But Pakistan may not like to let Afridi go.
Tauseef Ahmed Khan, a professor of mass communication at the Federal Urdu University in Karachi, has put his finger on what has become the Aafia Siddiqui phenomenon in Pakistan. He said: “After the 9/11 war on terror, most of the Pakistanis believe that America is against the Muslims. So whether she is guilty or not, I believe the America should release her on humanitarian grounds. These issues are used by the extremists to arouse the sentiments of Muslims.”