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Mystery Shrouds Case of Pakistani Scientist Linked to Terrorists


A Pakistani woman who is charged with trying to murder U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan refused to appear for her arraignment in New York City Thursday. Defense lawyers say Aafia Siddiqui is unable or unwilling to submit to a required strip-search due to wounds she suffered when she was arrested nearly two months ago and that she urgently needs medical and psychological care. VOA's Walter Wisniewski has more.

Aafia Siddiqui was absent when prosecutors and defense attorneys gathered in federal court on Thursday. The defense team says the 36-year-old, U.S.-educated scientist is in extremely poor mental and physical health. The lawyers want the court to transfer her from a federal detention center to a hospital, to determine whether she is able to stand trial.

"I believe that she has severe emotional, psychological and medical issues, [and] that human rights require that she be taken out of the Bureau of Prisons and transferred to Bellevue [Hospital], so that she can be evaluated," said Elizabeth Fink, Siddiqui's lead defense attorney.

Siddiqui came to the United States as a teenager. She trained as a neuroscientist at two prestigious American universities, married and had three children, then returned to Pakistan in 2002. A year later, she dropped out of sight and was not heard from again until her arrest in mid-July in Afghanistan's Ghazni province.

The police who arrested Siddiqui called in U.S. soldiers and FBI agents to interrogate the woman the following day. They say their prisoner somehow took a rifle from one of the Americans and opened fire. She missed, but one of the soldiers shot Siddiqui in the abdomen.

After emergency surgery, she was held in Afghanistan for several weeks, then returned to the U.S. and charged with attempted murder and other offenses. Her indictment, which was unsealed earlier this week, links her to unspecified terrorist groups and that, through handwritten notes and computer files, she discussed the feasibility of attacks on U.S. targets -- including New York's landmark Empire State Building.

No one will speak on the record, but the implication is that Siddiqui was a suicide-bomber-in-training, and that she was under the control of terrorists during the nearly five years in which she dropped out of sight.

Siddiqui's lawyers tell a markedly different story. They suggest that Siddiqui originally was detained by what attorney Elizabeth Fink calls "the American dark side". The defense lawyer scoffs at the indictment's citation of the suspicious documents, and notes that no charges of terrorist activity have been brought against her client.

"She's not being charged with possessing any of those documents," said Fink. "Why was that put there? It was put there so that everybody can think that she's 'al-Qaida mom.'"

Although Fink and her colleagues have not seen Siddiqui since August 11, they say she has been left "incredibly damaged" by the events of the past two months. They are seeking psychological tests to determine whether Siddiqui is competent to stand trial. They say the strip-search required at the detention center where Siddiqui is being held is excruciatingly painful because of the severity of her wounds.

U.S. District Judge Richard Berman ordered prosecutors and defense lawyers to try to agree on arrangements for Siddiqui to appear in court in Manhattan, possibly by a videolink from her cell in Brooklyn. Both sides are due to appear in court again on September 22.

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