86-year prison term for Dr. Siddiqui: Victory in Courtroom is Loss on Worldwide Public Stage

We have maintained an ongoing interest in the tragic case of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui. As we have stated before, we do not know whether Dr. Siddiqui is actually guilty for the offenses she was charged, found guilty and sentenced to 86 years in prison.  What we do know is that our Government has cloaked the Siddiqui case in such mystery and secrecy that we believe she was most likely kidnapped, along with her three children, by Pakistan’s infamous intelligence agency in Karachi in 2003 and turned over to our Government who placed her in secret detention in Bagram military prison in Afghanistan where she was subjected to torture and other forms of debilitating abuse.

Just months after U.S. District Court Judge Richard M. Berman, sitting in the Southern District of New York, imposed an 86-year prison term on Dr. Siddiqui following her conviction for shooting at American military and intelligence personnel after her detention in Ghanzi, Afghanistan in July 2008, the highly publicized and controversial WikiLeaks disclosures of U.S. State Department classified cables has reawaken what the British newspaper, The Guardian, calls “one of the most vexed mysteries of the Bush-era ‘war on terror’.”

One cable from the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, dated July 31, 2008 (two weeks after Siddiqui’s capture in Afghanistan), stated: “Bagram officials have assured us that they have not been holding Siddiqui for the last four years, as has been alleged.” Earlier cables from the embassy in February addressed the widespread public protest and outrage in Pakistan following Siddiqui’s conviction in February 2010.  At that time U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson charged the protests were the result of “one-sided” media coverage in Pakistan about the case.

The mystery surrounding Dr. Siddiqui’s strange disappearance from Karachi in 2003 assumed an international life of its own in 2008 when, according to the Peace thru Justice Foundation, four men escaped from the Bagram prison and began to share stories about a Pakistani woman known as “Prisoner 650” who had been repeatedly subjected to torture and physical abuse at the hands of U.S. Government and military personnel. After a British citizen named Binyan Mohamed was released from U.S. secret detention, he positively identified a photograph of Dr. Siddiqui as “Prisoner 650.” The Prisoner 650/Dr. Siddiqui story was picked up by British journalist Yvonne Ridley who coined her as the “Gray Lady of Bagram.” The “Gray Lady” term was employed because Ridley said “Prisoner 650” appeared to be a “ghost” by all those who saw her and heard her screams during torture sessions at the infamous Bagram prison.

During Dr. Siddiqui’s trial last February, the Government went to great lengths to keep the five years she disappeared from the face of the earth “off limits” to the jury that convicted her. Why? Because the Government, we believe, is hiding secrets about what it did to Dr. Siddiqui during those five years. Tragically, whether or not Dr. Siddiqui was ever actually in Bagram prison and tortured there is no longer the real issue. The issue now is that the world believes she was, especially the people of Pakistan.

Should we be concerned about what the people of Pakistan think about the United States? Yes, as long as we are sending billions of dollars in military and economic aid to the country to secure their assistance in our so-called “war on terror,” we must have good relations with its people. The WikiLeaks cables themselves reflect that far beyond the Dr. Siddiqui case our relationship with the Pakistani government, particularly its intelligence and military branches, is strained to say the least. The Dr. Siddiqui affair is, and will remain, a sticky-wicket in trying to work through these tense political and military relationships.

The American public will never know all the immoral, unethical and illegal things our Government did during the Bush-era “war on terror.” The outrageous tragedy about this so-called war-on-terror declared by former President George W. Bush in the wake of the horrible 9/11 Twin Tower attacks is that it has cost us more, both in human lives and economic loss, than any terror attack the war was designed to present. In Iraq alone, we have incurred 4,429 deaths and 32,937 wounded or seriously injured while another 320,000 of our returning troops suffer from some form of psychological trauma and an average of 18 are committing suicide each day in this country. In Afghanistan, we have incurred 1,415 deaths and 2,309 wounded or seriously injured, and the number are increasing daily. The total costs of these two wars—most of which was waged “on credit” during the Bush years—to American taxpayers is nearly $1.2 trillion.

The earliest possible withdrawal date from Afghanistan has now been set for 2014 with some military experts saying it may be another ten years before we see a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from that country. All U.S. forces are scheduled to be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of 2011. In the meantime we will continue to experience more human casualties and irreparable damage to our national economy and democratic reputation as we wage the so-called “war on terror.” The costs of funding these wars, both on the battlefield and in the human damage they inflict on our military personnel, will increase exponentially and remain a fiscal drain on our economy. And just to put this issue into a clearer perspective, the House Veterans Affairs Committee was recently informed by prominent economists that the lifetime medical care and benefits for troops returning from these two wars who were disabled by their service will costs taxpayers another $1.3 trillion.

And what is the end result of these staggering costs to human lives and our economic well-being: the United States has become an international boogeyman attracting more “terrorists” who are willing to harm and attack the United States than there were in 2001. The terrorists have won the war—if not on the battlefield, then in the hearts and minds of many young people worldwide who now see America as “foreign occupiers” and “oppressors” trying to rule with the world with the facade of Democracy but the reality of empire. We have become to approximately one-third of the world’s population a ugly contradiction of the principles we proclaim.

In Pakistan alone, with our predator drone strikes, we have created more “militants” (or “terrorists” depending upon the locale) than we have eliminated. These drone attacks began in Pakistan began in 2004. The New America Foundation reports that there have been 199 drone attacks in northwest Pakistan with 103 of them coming in 2010 alone. Hundreds of innocent Pakistani civilians have been killed in these attacks. Pakistani authorities report that in 2009 alone 708 innocent civilians were killed in 44 drone attacks with only five of these strikes hitting al Qaeda or Taliban “terrorists,” meaning that 140 innocent Pakistanis had to die in order for us to kill one suspected “terrorist.” Is there any wonder why we are so hated in the tribal regions that protect Osama bin Laden and his cohorts?

And hanging over all these innocent lives lost, and the loss of “good will” among Pakistanis for Americans they have produced, is the symbolic case of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui. This one woman, who many believe has been driven into the darkest depths of mental illness at the hands of American torturers, now looms as a dark cloud over the American and Pakistani relationship. We will never truly have any semblance of trust with the Pakistani people again so long as we keep the “Gray Lady of Bagram”, who has become a national icon in her country, incarcerated in an American prison labeled a “threat” to our national security. As a gesture of good will, our Government should find a way to send Dr. Siddiqui home to be with her people, her family and her surviving children. If our Government can swap 10 “sleeper” Russian agents for four Americans held in Russian prisons as it did this past summer, then it can certainly return Dr. Siddiqui to her native Pakistan.

The bottom line is this: Dr. Siddiqui has not killed a single American. We have killed thousands of innocent Pakistanis in our attempts to kill al Qaeda terrorists and Taliban insurgents who pose no legitimate threat to Americans as they sit in the rugged mountains of northwest Pakistan. The political damage caused to the Pakistani government and the loss of international goodwill to our country is simply not worth keeping Dr. Siddiqui in an American prison for the rest of her natural life.