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Pakistani Receives 86-Year Sentence for Firing at US Troops

A U.S. federal court in New York has sentenced Pakistani scientist Aafia Siddiqui to 86 years in prison for attempting to murder U.S. soldiers and federal agents while she was in custody in Afghanistan two years ago. District Court Judge Richard Berman sentenced the 38-year-old Siddiqui to 86 years in prison for her conviction on seven counts stemming from a July 2008 incident in which she grabbed an American soldier's rifle at a police station in the Afghan town of Ghazni and began firing. U.S. forces returned fire, wounding Siddiqui, the only casualty in the incident.

The day before the shooting, she had been detained by Afghan police in a small town where she was found carrying plans for what U.S. prosecutors said were terrorist attacks in the United States. Although Siddiqui was never charged with terrorism, U.S. officials say she helped al-Qaida operatives who were sent to the United States by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

The jury found that Siddiqui acted without premeditation. But in a four-hour sentencing hearing, Judge Richard Berman repeatedly termed her acts premeditated. Her defense lawyers argued for a minimum sentence of 12 years, saying that Siddiqui is severely mentally ill.

Berman rejected that argument. He said he increased the sentence because of several factors, including terrorist intent and motivation to commit a hate crime.

After the hearing, Siddiqui's lawyers said they plan to appeal the verdict. Defense attorney Charles Swift said that government authorities never made available the U.S. military reports on the incident. He said the report, which was declassified by the government after it was published this year on the WikiLeaks website, does not mention Siddiqui as having fired the gun. It said only that she pointed a weapon. He said he believes there was a further in-depth investigation of the incident by the military that has also been withheld from the defense.

“I think there's real concern over the government's obligation to turn over exculpatory evidence,” he told reporters. “And I don't blame the prosecution in this case. What I've found in national security cases like this is they have as big a battle trying to get evidence as anyone does. But the United States, to do justice, has to do it credibly and has to produce all the documents. And that's one of three or four huge ongoing appellate issues.”

Siddiqui, a U.S.-educated neuroscientist, was allowed to speak at length at the hearing. In an emotional rush of sentences, she denied that she was mentally ill and repeatedly invoked the Prophet Muhammad in urging Muslims not to respond to her sentence with violence.

“I am asking all the Muslims: Don't do an act of violence," she said in court. “If you want to do anything for me, educate them about Islam," she said, saying it is a religion of peace that has made her happy and content, even in prison.

Her voice broke when she referred to her claim that she had been kidnapped with her children in Pakistan in 2003 and kept in a secret prison for many years. When she was arrested in Ghazni, her oldest son, then 12, was with her. Her daughter has since been found, but her youngest child, who would be about seven years old now, has not. “I don’t know what happened to my baby,” she said.

Tina Monshipour Foster of the New York-based human rights group International Justice Network, which represents Siddiqui's family, criticized Pakistan for failing to push for Siddiqui's repatriation as part of a prisoner exchange prior to sentencing.

“These were things that should have been put in place years ago, and she will still be on the mind of all Pakistanis. This case is not over. This is just the beginning,” Foster said, adding that the real importance of the case, her group believes, is that it draws attention to thousands of disappearances in Pakistan, most the work of Pakistani security forces, according to the U.S. State Department and other sources.

Judge Berman recommended that Siddiqui be imprisoned in Texas at the Federal Medical Center, Carswell, a medical and psychiatric facility for female federal prisoners. Siddiqui would be more than 100-years-old by the time she is eligible for release.