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Saturday, April 3, 2010
The Growing Aafia Siddiqi ProblemFor most Americans, the story of Aafia Siddiqui was a flash in the pan. An American-educated scientist allegedly linked to Al Qaeda, she was placed on an FBI "wanted" list in 2003, arrested in Pakistan in 2008, tried and convicted in 2010 on charges of attempted murder and assault stemming from an incident when U.S. law enforcement officials showed up to question her after she was detained by authorities in Afghanistan. She grabbed an unsecured rifle and started shooting.
The trial did little to shed light on her alleged terrorist ties and complicating matters further, she showed significant signs of mental illness (first reported on INTELWIRE). Based on all the evidence, I'm inclined to think the mental illness is real and not a legal defense gambit.
Since news of her arrest became public, "Doctor Aafia" has become a cause celebre in her native Pakistan. The Pakistani government repeatedly went through the motions of attempting to intervene on her behalf with the United States, without success, but the efforts amplified the status of her case. Meanwhile, the Pakistani press has advanced an escalating series of stories about Siddiqui's arrest and interrogation, including thus-far unsubstantiated allegations that she was arrested long before 2008 and kept in a secret CIA prison.
Last week, Siddiqui's mother and sister told a Pakistani news outlet a lurid story about Siddiqui having been tortured and sexually abused while in U.S. custody, including a claim that she was stripped naked and forced to step on the Quran. The story is getting a lot of traction in the Pakistani media.
I don't find these tales particularly credible, particularly the latest and most-shocking allegations which are provided by Siddiqui's family but are not clearly sourced (i.e., we don't know how they know this). The family's claims include an extravagant and also-undocumented claim that all of this torture was videotaped. Some of the claims were attributed to Siddiqui herself, and as noted above, there is some reason to question her mental state.
"I am not making this up," said Siddiqui's mother, Ismat.
But my opinion isn't what counts here. Mainstream Pakistanis do find these claims credible, as do a growing number of people in the wider Muslim world and beyond. Thus far, the US has not done much to counter the emerging narrative in a country that is a vital front in the war against Al Qaeda, and whose pro-U.S. Zardari administration is getting weaker by the day.
It is probably too late to put the genie back in the bottle -- stories like this don't go away even when debunked, and those who do not trust the United States are not likely to trust the documentation provided by the United States.
But a swift and thorough disclosure of U.S. documents on the Siddiqui case might help limit the damage this story is doing to U.S. standing in the region. A brush fire left to burn unattended is certain to spread.
Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.
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