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Pakistani Convicted of Trying to Kill American Soldiers, FBI agents in Afghanistan

The jury foreman announcing the verdict at Aafia Siddiqui's trial in New York, 03 Feb 2010

A federal jury in Manhattan has convicted Pakistani neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui of trying to kill American government personnel while she was in custody in Afghanistan. Siddiqui, 37, was found guilty of attempted murder and six other charges stemming from the shooting at a police station in the Afghan town of Ghazni in July 2008. The jury of eight women and four men found that Siddiqui's acts were not premeditated, however. Defense lawyers said that means she will be sentenced to a maximum of 30 or 40 years. They plan to appeal on the grounds that the trial was unfair because of legal errors by Judge Richard Berman.

After the verdict was read, Siddiqui, dressed in white silk hijab that covered all but her eyes and hands, protested from her seat at the defense table. "This is a verdict coming from Israel, not America," she said. "Anger should be directed where it belongs. I have testimony and I have proof." Defense attorney Elaine Sharp said that Siddiqui wanted to send a message to her defenders in Pakistan not to respond to the guilty verdict with violence. “She expressed to me adamantly that she does not want any violence, any violent protest, or any violent reprisal,” Sharp told reporters. “That is not what she's about.”

Siddiqui’s family, who include her sister Fowzia, a leading neurologist in Pakistan, and a brother who is an architect in Houston, Texas, issued a statement condemning the verdict as unjust. “Though she was not charged with any terrorism-related offense, Judge Berman permitted the prosecution's witnesses to characterize our sister as a terrorist - which, based on copious evidence, she clearly is not.”

Siddiqui, a mother of three who trained as a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brandeis University, had interrupted her two-week trial with several outbursts, upbraiding the judge, and addressing remarks to witnesses. Her lawyers tried to prevent her from testifying, saying that she was mentally ill after being held in solitary confinement since her arrival in the U.S. in the summer of 2008. But the judge permitted her testimony, which included her denials that she ever fired a shot or was capable of violence.

U.S. prosecutors presented six eyewitnesses, both American and Afghan, to the shooting in a small room at the police station in Ghazni. Siddiqui had been arrested the day before, together with her 11-year-old son, and U.S. investigators had arrived to question her about items reportedly found in her bag, including notes on making weapons and a “mass casualty attack” on landmarks in New York, and bottles containing what investigators said were “chemicals and gels.” The witnesses testified that Siddiqui, who was sequestered behind a curtain, grabbed a rifle that a U.S. soldier had laid down the floor nearby, shouted an obscenity, “Get the f--- out of here!” and “Allahu Akbar!” and shot off two rounds. An American soldier fired back with a pistol, wounding Siddiqui severely, although officials said she continued to struggle and to shout that she wanted to “kill Americans.”

No one else was injured, however, and the government presented no physical evidence, such as shells or casings, that the rifle had been fired. Siddiqui, in her turn, has claimed that she was shot while trying to escape. She also said she had been tortured in a secret prison in the five years before she was arrested in Afghanistan.

How and where she spent those five years remains a mystery. Although Siddiqui has not been charged with terrorism, American officials have long considered her a dedicated Al-Quaida agent: In 2004, the U.S. listed her as one of seven “most wanted” Al-Qaida fugitives. She was first questioned by the FBI in 2002, together with her then-husband, a doctor named Amjad Khan. They were asked about night-vision goggles, body armor, and military training manuals, including The Anarchist’s Arsenal, that they had bought over the Internet for thousands of dollars. Khan said he was using the items for hunting trips. At the end of 2002, Siddiqui made a trip alone from Pakistan to the U.S., where she reportedly opened a post box in the name of alleged al-Quaida agent Majid Khan. Pakistani and American officials have said that following her divorce, she married a nephew of alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, although Siddiqui’s family denies any such wedding.

Then, within weeks after the FBI issued a global alert for Siddiqui and her former husband in March 2003, she disappeared. Siddiqui and her family say that she and her three children, including her six-month-old son Suleman, six-year-old Ahmed and four-year-old Mariam, were stopped as they rode in a taxi to the Karachi airport. She says she was abducted by men who took her to the Bagram detention center in Afghanistan, where she was held for five years, and tortured. Her ex-husband, however, told Declan Walsh of the British newspaper The Guardian that Siddiqui spent those years living quietly with her three children at different locations in Pakistan, and that Pakistani intelligence had known where she was at all times.

Her elder son, American-born Ahmed, who was arrested with his mother in 2008, now lives in Pakistan with his aunt. He has not spoken to the press about where he and his mother were in those five years. And the whereabouts of the two other children, Mariam, who is also an American citizen, and Suleman, remain unknown.

Siddiqui is scheduled to be sentenced in the Manhattan court on May 6.