Should there be a prisoner exchange between the U.S and Pakistan?


Governments routinely lie to their citizens, including some in the government of the United States. Governments operate from the flawed premise that “you can’t handle the truth.” Perhaps not. Despite one catastrophic weather event after another, the number of people who believe these tragedies are caused by human activity has decreased from 71 percent in 2008 to 44 percent in 2011.  If people cannot “handle the truth” on matters concerning the future well-being of planet earth, it is of little wonder why they prefer not to seriously question the government when it serves up one lie after another. As the old Mark Twain saying goes, “A lie will go half way around the world while the truth is pulling its boots on.” Oh, excuse us! Despite popular opinion, that saying does not belong to Twain but to English evangelist Charles Haddon Spurgeon who said it during a sermon on April 1, 1855. See how easy a lie can perpetuate itself!


So, forgive our skepticism when we question what our government—through its intelligence, military, and law enforcement officials—has told us about Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, an American-educated neuroscientist who, on September 23, 2010, was sentenced to 86 years in the federal prison system following her conviction on seven counts of terrorism-related charges.


A Pakistani national, Dr. Siddiqui was linked to terrorism activities by none other than the 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed following his capture in Pakistan in March 2003 and during CIA “enhanced interrogations” and during which the admitted terrorist was subject to dozens of “waterboarding” episodes. Given the extreme torture techniques implemented on KSM, all testimony provided by him is highly questionable and most likely unreliable.  Dr. Siddiqui’s name was leaked to American media outlets by “government officials” in April 2003 as someone connected to terror plots. Shortly afterwards, Dr. Siddiqui and her three children disappeared in Karachi just days after she had returned from America. Her family said she was kidnapped—and world opinion believes the CIA was responsible for the kidnapping. The following year (May 2004), during a news conference, FBI Director Robert Mueller described Dr. Siddiqui as an “al Qaeda operative and facilitator” who was wanted by the FBI in connection “with possible terrorist threats against the United States.”


By 2008, international reports began to circulate about “The Gray Lady of Bagram,” the infamous military prison in Afghanistan. It has long been believed that the CIA used Bagram as one of its torture facilities. The first credible report about the “gray lady” came from a respected British journalist named Yvonne Ridley who told the Daily Times of Pakistan in July 2008 about a Pakistani woman who had been held for years in solitary confinement at Bagram. She was known officially as “Prisoner 650” who had been subjected to torture and sexual abuse over a four-year period. Ridley called her the “gray lady” because she appeared to be a “ghost” whose agonizing cries and screams deeply affected those who heard them. “This would never happen to a Western woman,” Ridley wrote.


Two weeks after Ridley’s public disclosure about the “gray lady,” Dr. Siddiqui and her oldest son were reportedly “arrested” by the Afghanistan National Police in Ghazni near the residence of a provisional governor. She reportedly had in her possession handwritten notes that referred to a “mass casualty attack” and listed various locations including the Empire State Building, Plum Island, Statute of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge. U.S. government authorities would later charge that the notes contained information about a “dirty bomb,” chemical and biological, and other explosives along with a mortality rate for each weapon.


We have long questioned this government version of events. A neurosurgeon and mother, who had disappeared from the face of the earth for five years, suddenly reappears disheveled walking the streets in Ghazni with her 8-year-old son carrying handwritten notes about dirty bombs, chemical weapons, and landmark targets. Please. What would Mark Twain say about that? But, wait, the hole to China gets deeper. Government officials said that the day after Dr. Siddiqui’s arrest a team of military and FBI officials, along with several interpreters, went to the Afghanistan National Police compound in Ghazni to interview the “terror suspect.” The team was escorted to a room by the Afghan police where the interview was to take place. A curtain separated this room from another room. Dr. Siddiqui was reportedly in the room adjacent to the interview room. The military personnel, according to the government account, set their weapons against a wall and Dr. Siddiqui reached through the curtain, snatched one of the weapons, and opened fire. She allegedly wounded one of the military personnel before she was also wounded in return gunfire. It was from this incident that the primary criminal action against her was initiated by the government.


On November 15, 2012, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Dr. Siddiqui’s conviction and the 86-year-prison sentence which effectively condemns her to die in a federal penal facility. To make matters worse, reports have surfaced, based on information supplied by Dr. Siddiqui’s sister, Dr. Fouzia Siddiqui that Dr. Siddiqui has been subjected to continued abuse in the federal prison system and has now been diagnosed with cancer.


We suspect the same fate may be reserved for Dr. Shakil Afridi who, this past May, was sentenced to 33 years in prison for treason by a Pakistani court for his role in helping American intelligence officials determine whether Osama bin Laden was in the compound where he was ultimately killed during a Navy Seal raid on May 2, 2011. The CIA did not have ironclad, specific intelligence that bin Laden was at the compound. All the agency had was surveillance photos of a tall, bearded man who paced in a secluded section of the Abbottabad compound. The intelligence agency believed it was bin Laden, but not with the kind of certainty needed to get the President of the United States to approve a raid or attack on the soil of another sovereign nation. The CIA enlisted the support of Dr. Afridi to conduct a “vaccination drive” from which the agency could get DNA samples from children in the compound in hopes that it would link one to bin Laden. For whatever reason, the drive failed to get DNA samples from the compound.


The CIA said after the raid and the international political firestorm it produced, that Dr. Afridi, a government surgeon, was not aware of the CIA’s suspicions that bin Laden was hiding in the compound. That’s hard to believe. We suspect it’s another one of those government lies traveling around the world while the truth it still struggling with its boots. Especially in light of some of Dr. Afridi’s post-raid comments: “I believe that America is the only power that can defeat these monsters, these terrorists. And that means my life is in permanent danger.”


The truth in this matter can best be found in the reaction of U.S government officials to the harsh sentence Dr. Afridi received for his “acts of treason” as the Pakistani government charged. While the CIA declined comment on the harsh 33-year prison sentence Dr. Afridi received, the Washington Post cited an unidentified “senior U.S. official with knowledge of counterterrorism operations in Pakistan” saying that the doctor “was never asked to spy on Pakistan. He was asked only to help locate al-Qaeda terrorists, who threaten Pakistan and the U.S. His actions were not treasonous; they were heroic and patriotic.” Pentagon spokesman George Little agreed: “Anyone who helped the United States find bin Laden was working against al-Qaeda and not against Pakistan.”


In a joint statement carried in part by the Post, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ.), the ranking Republican on the committee, called the sentence “shocking and outrageous” and urged Pakistan to pardon Dr. Afridi. “What Dr. Afridi did is the farthest thing from treason,” the statement continued. “It was a courageous, heroic and patriotic, which helped to locate the most wanted terrorist in the world – a mass murderer who had the blood of many innocent Pakistanis on his hands.”


And therein lies the bone of contention in the Drs. Siddiqui/Afridi cases: Pakistanis believe that Dr. Siddiqui is a patriot and a hero while Americans think the same about Dr. Afridi. Treason, like beauty, is truly in the eyes of the beholder. Sens. Levin and McCain warned that “Dr. Afridi’s continuing imprisonment and treatment as a criminal will only do further harm to U.S.-Pakistani relations, including diminishing willingness to provide financial assistance to Pakistan.”


We would like to suggest a rational, reasonable alternative: a prisoner swap. Dr. Siddiqui for Dr. Afridi. Both countries have advocated for the release of each prisoner. As the old saying goes, “a fair exchange ain’t no robbery”: “traitor” for “traitor,” Pakistani for Pakistani, doctor for doctor. Call it what you like, the labels will never be accurate, nor the truth known, due to both governments’ obvious obscuring of the truth. Both countries would benefit from the exchange: Pakistanis would welcome the release of Dr. Siddiqui and Americans would embrace the release of Dr. Afridi. The United States and Russia have longed engaged in “prisoner swaps.” Why not the U.S. and Pakistan?


If there is no exchange of the two imprisoned doctors, they both will die in prison—and each country will be blamed by the other for their deaths. The personal animus, the political and diplomatic divide, and the economic relations between the two countries will only be exacerbated. Let there be peace, let there be healing: send Dr. Siddiqui home to be with her family; and send Dr. Afridi to America where he can spend the rest of his life a hero. The talents of each prisoner are wasting away behind bars.


And what does each country lose by such a swap? Nothing. It’s a win-win situation. Both countries can walk away from the negotiating table with a saved face. And perhaps—just perhaps—it may make amends for the lies each government has told its citizens about each prisoner.