86 Year Federal Sentence Handed to the Gray Lady of Bagram Greater Than Necessary, Cruel and Unusual

Depending on who you believe, Dr. Aafia Siddiqui is either an American-educated Pakistani neuroscientist kidnapped in Pakistan in 2003 and tortured by Americans in the infamous Bagram prison in Afghanistan over the next four years or she is a captured al Qaeda terrorist who tried to kill six American military personnel in Ghazni, Afghanistan in 2008. Whichever she is, she did not deserve the 86 year sentence U.S. District Court Judge Richard M. Berman imposed on her on September 23, 2010 because she posed a threat of “recidivism.”


There are a number of fairly certain facts about the bizarre and tragic case of Aafia Siddiqui in the public record. The Pakistani-born doctor was given up to the CIA by 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed following his March 1, 2003 arrest in Pakistan and subsequent torture by the intelligence agency. Information obtained by Mohammed has been called into serious dispute given his reported willingness to confess to anything suggested to avoid additional torture.  The “Agency,” which had virtually transformed itself into a lawless organization of kidnappings, torture, and secret prisons during the administration of George W. Bush, leaked Siddiqui’s name to the media, including CNN who in April 2003 took the Government-fed bait and linked the doctor to alleged al-Qaeda terrorism activities. Shortly after Siddiqui’s name was made public in connection with terrorism she disappeared with her three children in Karachi, just days after returning from America. International media outlets quickly reported she had been taken into custody by the FBI, who denied the claim, while her family members were told she had been kidnapped.


A little more than a year after her Karachi disappearance, former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Patrick Mueller conducted a news conference during which Mueller called Siddiqui “an al-Qaeda operative and facilitator” who was wanted in connection “with possible terrorist threats against the United States.” However, just days after this May 2004 news conference, the FBI issued an international “information alert” which stated that while the agency had no information connecting Siddiqui “to specific terrorist activities,” the FBI still wanted “to locate and question [her].”


Many people, like Andy Worthington, became convinced that Dr. Siddiqui had been kidnapped—either by Pakistani or American authorities—and was being held in a CIA secret prison somewhere (here, here, and here). By 2007 the Human Rights Watch group released a report calling Siddiqui one of the many “ghost prisoners” being held in secret prisons controlled by the CIA. And by November of that year former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf suspended Pakistan’s Supreme Court Justice lftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry who was leading an investigation into the detention and disappearance of some 500 Pakistanis, including Siddiqui.


By early 2008 reports began to circulate among international media outlets about “The Gray Lady of Bagram,” who was being held in the military prison located on Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, which had eclipsed Guantanamo Bay as America’s worse torture facility. These reports were given credence in mid-2008 when British journalist Yvonne Ridley told the Daily News of Pakistan about a Pakistani woman who had been held in solitary confinement in the Bagram prison for years. Ridley began to speak out and write about Dr. Siddiqui who had become known as “Prisoner 650”—the screaming “Gray Lady” of Bagram because of the torture and repeated rapes she reportedly suffered over a four-year period. Ridley coined the term “gray lady” because Prisoner 650 appeared to be a “ghost” whose screams of anguish forever haunted those who heard them.


Suddenly, in July 2008, out of the clear blue, and with no rational explanation ever being given to the public, American authorities said Dr. Siddiqui appeared in Ghazni, Afghanistan.


In our February 5, 2010 post, we picked up this story that Dr. Siddiqui and her oldest son were reportedly arrested by Afghanistan National Police in Ghazni near the residence of the provincial governor. According to a federal indictment issued in the Southern District of New York, Siddiqui had in her possession handwritten notes that referred to a ‘mass casualty attack’ and listed various locations including the Empire State Building, Plum Island, the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge. The indictment further alleged that the handwritten notes contained information about a ‘dirty bomb,’ chemical and biological weapons, and other explosives along with a mortality rate for each weapon.


The government further charged that on July 18, 2008, a team of military and law enforcement personnel, along with interpreters assisting them, went to the Afghanistan National Police compound in Ghazni to interview Siddiqui. The team was escorted to a room where the interview was to be conducted. A curtain separated the interview room from another room. Siddiqui was reportedly in the adjacent room unbeknownst to the U.S. team. The military personnel rested their guns against a wall at which time Siddiqui allegedly grabbed one of the weapons and shot [at] one of the military personnel with it. She was also shot before being restrained. In addition to terror-related charges, she was indicted for the attempted murder of U.S. national [and assault of two others].


On August 4, 2008, Aafia Siddiqui was returned to New York to face the criminal charges against her. When she appeared before a federal Magistrate Judge that day, Siddiqui refused to accept the charges brought against her by the U.S. government. Her attorney at the time, Elizabeth Fink, told the Magistrate Judge that no one could believe anything the FBI said about the case and argued there was evidence to show Siddiqui had actually been arrested in Karachi in March 2003 along with her three children.


As a matter of fact, The Daily Times reported on August 8, 2008 that official documents existed which proved Aafia and her three children had been arrested in Pakistan in March 2003—not in Afghanistan in 2008 as alleged by U.S. authorities. The newspaper stated that “sources close to the matter claimed the Interior Ministry asked the provincial home departments for detailed reports on missing persons a couple of weeks ago, and that the list prepared by the Sindh Home Department included Dr. Siddiqui and her three children, Maryam, Admed and Suleman. The report confirmed MI detained Dr. Siddiqui and her three children in Gulsham-e-Igbal on March 30, 2003, later handing her over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).”


Regardless of the government involved, no official report prepared by any foreign authority has ever coincided with American accounts in the case. For example, the highly respected news wire service Reuters reported that Afghan officials offered a different version about Siddiqui’s alleged capture in Ghazni. The Afghan National Police were reportedly suspicious when they saw Siddiqui and her teenage son in the vicinity of the Governor’s mansion and took the pair into custody. Reuters reported a dispute erupted between Afghan and American officials the following day over Siddiqui’ custody. Reuters went on to say American military personnel disarmed the Afghan police and proceeded to shoot Siddiqui who was neither armed nor resisting. The Reuters report explained the shooting this way:


“’U.S. soldiers then proceeded to disarm the Afghan police at which point Siddiqui approached the Americans complaining of mistreatment by the police. U.S. troops, the officer said, ‘thinking that she had explosives and would attack them as a suicide bomber, shot her and took her.’


“On August 11, 2008, Siddiqui appeared before a federal judge in a wheel chair. Attorney Fink pleaded with the magistrate to order medical care for her client. Reuters reported Fink told the judge: ‘She has been here, judge, for one week and she has not seen a doctor, even they [U.S. authorities] know she has been shot.’ Christoper LaVigne, one of the prosecutors in the case, defended the lack of medical care on the grounds that Siddiqui is a ‘high-security risk.’ Judge Robert Pitman was not impressed with that justification, ordering government prosecutors to make sure Siddiqui was seen a doctor within 24 hours.


The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan immediately charged that during her captivity Siddiqui had a kidney removed; her teeth removed; her nose broken and improperly set; and that her gunshot wound had not been properly treated. Another Reuters report followed up these charges claiming that Siddiqui believed she had lost part of her intestines as a result of the gunshot and that she was still suffering from internal bleeding. “Lawyers for Siddiqui said … she appeared confused and did not know where she had been,’ Reuters added, ‘except to claim that she was held captive by unknown authorities in a small room.”


This did not deter the Government from prosecuting the “Gray Lady.” On February 3, 2010, following a two week trial, an eight-woman and four-man jury found Dr. Siddiqui guilty on all counts involving the shooting incident in Ghazni. “This is a verdict coming from Israel, not America,” the obviously mentally ill, MIT-trained, neuroscientist said while being led from a Manhattan courtroom. “That’s where the anger belongs. I can testify to this. And I have proof.”


Dr. Siddiqui’s harsh 86-year sentence promptly drew international protests and condemnation especially in her native Pakistan where government officials vowed to fight for her unconditional release. A crowd estimated at 300,000 gathered in Karachi to hear members of Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the second largest political party in Pakistan, call upon President Barak Obama to set aside Siddiqui’s “inhuman sentence.” Representatives of the Pakistan Peoples Party, Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid, the Karachi Bar Association, and the country trade unions joined MQM in condemning Siddiqui’s sentence.


Claiming that ninety percent of the world’s population opposes America and its foreign policies, MQM’s chief, Altaf Hussain, told the crowd: “The Americans are responsible for what they have done to the world. America has killed innocent people in Iraq and Afghanistan. The allegations against Dr. Siddiqui are false as they could not prove them. America is answerable [not Dr. Siddiqui].”


Aafia Siddiqui’s case has spawned international outrage.  Her case, in many ways, has become the epicenter of the world community’s anger and resentment toward the “torture” policies carried out under the Bush administration during its so-called “war on terror.” Andy Worthington captured both the legal complexity and the international debate surrounding the Siddiqui case with his September 24, 2010 Huffington Post report:


“Like everything in the story of Aafia Siddiqui, which remains, in many ways, the most opaque story in the whole of the ‘War on Terror,’ it is difficult to say what is true and what is not, but these accounts, as well as eyewitness accounts from other prisoners, including the British resident and former Guantanamo prisoner Binyam Mohamed, who has stated that he saw Aafia Siddiqui in Bagram, serve only to demonstrate that, not only is the 86-year sentence the most abominable miscarriage of justice, but also that it meshes perfectly with the notion that this whole sad story is an enormous cover-up. As I asked six months ago:


“If Aafia Siddiqui was indeed held in secret US custody for over five years, was the story of the attempted shooting of the U.S. soldiers in July 2008 a cynical set-up, designed to ensure that she could be transferred to the U.S. and tried, convicted and imprisoned without the true story coming to light?


“For someone once touted as a significant al-Qaeda operative, it is, to say the least, convenient that she has been sentenced to 86 years on charges that—beyond the prosecutors’ claim that she was an al-Qaeda supporter and danger to the U.S.—completely ignored her alleged role in al-Qaeda. The entire court case also avoided the valid presumption that, if she was indeed regarded as an al-Qaeda operative, it would not be surprising if, like many dozens of other ‘high-value detainees,’ she suffered years of torture in U.S. custody, and then, somehow, had to be disposed of.”


We share Worthington’s concerns. If Dr. Siddiqui was in fact such a “high-value” target of al-Qaeda, why didn’t she Government prosecute for those charges? We simply cannot believe the Government gave the public the whole story in this case.  But even if we accepted everything the Government has alleged against Dr. Siddiqui, both informally and formally, we would still call upon the U.S. Justice Department to arrange for her immediate release and return to her native Pakistan. We are convinced, based upon the compelling evidence in the public record that our Government detained and most likely tortured Dr. Siddiqui for nearly five years and, thus, along with the apparent death of her youngest child, she has been punished more than enough, especially considering the crime of conviction.  The 86-year sentence imposed upon her by Judge Berman is just an unwarranted and cruel continuation of that torture. The U.S. government’s unnecessary attempts to maintain secrecy and it’s refusal to present the entire case about Dr. Aafia Siddiqui before the court and the court of public opinion have forever tainted the legitimacy of this case, regardless of its merit.  It is shameful, and her case will remain a blight on our criminal justice system and the reputation of the United States throughout the world community until she is released.


See: Factors in Determining Sentence at 18 USC 3553