After intensive civil rights groups pressure and angry protests in Pakistan, the US authorities have formally acknowledged arresting Dr. Afia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist, five years after her mysterious disappearance in Karachi with her three teen age kids.
On August 5, the FBI suddenly produced Dr. Siddiqui in a New York court to charge her with possessing documents including recipes for explosives and chemical weapons and description of New York land marks plus firing two shots at a US army captain which, very conveniently, missed.
But the story of the circumstances, the timing and the place from where she had been picked up that the Americans purveyed for the world to believe hardly sounds credible.
According to the charge sheet, Dr Siddiqui was loitering outside the compound of Ghazni Governor in Afghanistan on July 17 this year when she was taken into custody and had in her possession numerous documents on making explosives, chemical weapons and other weapons involving biological material and neurological agents. Then while under detention at the notorious Bagram airbase cell she shot at American officials after getting hold of a rifle of one of them.
Tellingly, the story of the Afghan police in Ghazni contradicts the FBI charge sheet. The Afghan police said officers searched Siddiqui after reports of her suspicious behavior and found maps of Ghazni, including one of the governor’s house, and arrested her along with a teenage boy. US troops requested the woman be handed over to them but the police refused. US soldiers then disarmed the Afghan police, at which point Siddiqui approached the Americans complaining of mistreatment by the police. The US troops thinking that she had explosives and would attack them as a suicide bomber, shot her and took her.
According to the New York Times, the United States intelligence agencies have said that she had links to at least 2 of the 14 men suspected of being high-level members of Al Qaeda who were moved to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in September 2006. The charges against her, however, do not appear to be related to those allegations, but to her assault on the Americans who were about to question her.
The hearing cleared up none of the mysteries that have surrounded Ms. Siddiqui’s case since she disappeared with her three children while visiting her parents’ home in Karachi, Pakistan, in March 2003.
Her mysterious disappearance story
Dr. Afia Siddiqui left her mother’s house in Gulshan-e-Iqbal, Karachi, Sindh province, along with her three children, in a Metro-cab on March 30, 2003 to catch a flight for Rawalpindi, but never reached the airport. The press reports claimed that Dr. Afia had been picked-up by Pakistani intelligence agencies while on her way to the airport and initial reports suggested that she was handed over to the American Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). At the time of her arrest she was 30 years and the mother of three sons the oldest of which was four and the youngest only one month. (Still there is no news about her three children.)
A few days later an American news channel, NBC, reported that Afia had been arrested in Pakistan on suspicion of facilitating money transfers for terror networks of Osama Bin Laden. A Monthly English magazine of Karachi in a special coverage on Dr. Afia reported that one week after her disappearance, a plain clothed intelligence went to her mother’s house and warned her, “We know that you are connected to higher-ups but do not make an issue out of your daughter’s disappearance.” According to the report the mother was threatened her with ‘dire consequences’ if she made a fuss.
Dr. Afia Siddiqui, who studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US, for about 10 years and did her PhD in genetics, returned to Pakistan in 2002. Having failed to get a suitable job, she again visited the US on a valid visa in February 2003 to search for a job and to submit an application to the US immigration authorities. She moved there freely and came back to Karachi by the end of February 2003 after renting a post office box in her name in Maryland for the receipt of her mail. It has been claimed by the FBI (Newsweek International, June 23, 2003, issue) that the box was hired for one Mr Majid Khan, an alleged member of Al Qaeda residing in Baltimore.
Throughout March 2003 flashes of the particulars of Dr. Afia were telecast with her photo on American TV channels and radios painting her as a dangerous Al Qaeda person needed by the FBI for interrogation. On learning of the FBI campaign against her she went underground in Karachi and remained so till her kidnapping. The June 23, 2003, issue of Newsweek International was exclusively devoted to Al Qaeda. The core of the issue was an article “Al Qaeda’s Network in America”. The article has three photographs of so-called Al Qaeda members – Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, Dr. Afia Siddiqui and Ali S. Al Marri of Qatar who has studied in the US like Dr. Siddiqui and had long since returned to his homeland. In this article, which has been authored by eight journalists who had access to FBI records, the only charge leveled against Dr. Afia is that “she rented a post-office box to help a former resident of Baltimore named Majid Khan (alleged Al Qaeda suspect) to help establish his US identity.
At a news conference in May 2004, US Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller announced that the FBI was looking for seven people with suspected ties to Al Qaeda. MIT graduate and former Boston resident Aafia Siddiqui was the only woman on the list.
The prisoner No. 650 at the notorious US prison at Bargham, Afghanistan
Dr. Afia’s plight was highlighted by a British journalist and peace activist, Yvonne Ridley, who flew to Pakistan to address a press conference in Islamabad on July 7, 2008. “Today I am crying out for help, not for myself but for a Pakistani woman neither you nor I have ever met. She has been held in isolation by the Americans in Afghanistan and she needs help,” Ridley told a crowded press conference.
Ridley first learnt about the woman while reading a book by Guantanamo ex-detainee Moazzam Begg. One of the four Arabs who escaped from the infamous Bagram cell in July 2005 also told a television channel that he had heard a woman’s cries and screams in the prison but never saw her.
Ridley called her the Grey Lady of Bagram because she was almost a ghost, a spectre whose cries and screams continue to haunt those who heard her.
The woman is registered as Prisoner number 650 and the US officials can’t deny the fact, Ridley said. “I demand that the US military free the Grey Lady immediately. We don’t know her identity, we don’t know her state of mind and we don’t know the extent of the abuse or torture she has been subjected to.”
On 24th July the Asian Human Rights Commission issued an Urgent Appeal in the case of the disappearance of a lady doctor. Amid public protests in Pakistan, on August 1, an FBI official visited the house of Dr. Afia’s brother in Houston to deliver the news that she is alive and in custody. One week later she was produced in a New York court where even the Judge judge expressed surprise at the quick extradition of Dr. Afia from Afghanistan to New York noting that in such a short period one could not extradite a person from Bronx (a New York Borough) to Manhattan.
Thousands of missing persons in Pakistan
Dr. Afia is one of Pakistan’s thousands of missing people who disappeared in custody, allegedly after being rounded up by the security agencies as part of “anti-terror campaigns” at the behest of the U.S.
Her case should re-focus attention on those missing people. Thousands of Pakistanis are missing and their families say that they were picked up by security agencies on the hunt for terror suspects. Last year, several officials, including President Musharraf acknowledged some of the detentions, arguing that they were a necessary part of the crackdown on “regional terrorism.”
In June this year, the Asian Human Rights Commission identified 52 illegal detention centers in Pakistan, though there was no indication whether these were being overseen by the CIA or had international connections.
The Asian Human Rights Commission reported that after filing a habeas corpus writ petition in the Islamabad High Court, Dr. Afia’s friends and relatives were threatened by several state agencies of Pakistan to withdraw the case or face the same situation.
Dr. Aafia’s story has yet to clarify the extent to which the Musharraf regime has been involved in illegal detentions and transfers of suspects to US authorities.
Not surprisingly, the United States is against the restoration of an independent judiciary in Pakistan that may again take up the cases of hundreds of missing persons apparently kidnapped by intelligence agencies and handed over to the US. Musharraf sacked the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Chaudhry Iftikhar Mohammad and other independent judges last year after they began questioning security agencies about missing persons’ cases and demanded that those held in illegal detention be produced in courts.
Misuse of US judicial system
Dr. Afia’s bail application has been rejected and if recent court cases against the Muslims have any resonation, it appears that the FBI will try to keep her behind the bars indefinitely even if she is acquitted by a jury.
More than two and half years, after failing to convict Palestinian activist and a former professor of South Florida University, Dr. Sami al-Arian, before a Florida jury, the government has continued to use all means to prolong his confinement. Dr. al-Arian has completed his nearly five-year prison term but remains in custody. Only three weeks before his scheduled release date of April 7, 2008 he was informed on March 19 that he would be called to testify before a third grand jury in Virginia. On June 25, 2008, he was indicted on two counts of criminal contempt for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury. On July 10, at a bail hearing at Alexandria, Virginia, Judge Leonie Brinkema ordered Dr. Sami Al-Arian, released but he remained in prison since the judge refused to block immigration authorities from detaining him as a prelude to his deportation.
Similarly, in November 2007, Dr. Abdelhaleem Ashqar, a Palestinian-American and former professor at Washington’s Howard University, was sentenced to more than 11 years imprisonment for refusing to testify before a grand jury looking into possible terror financing in the Middle East. Tellingly, in February 2007 Dr. Ashqar was acquitted of all terror-related charges.
The twisted story of Dr. Afia’s arrest is one of the strangest since the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Pakistan’s leading newspaper The Nation may be right when it says: “If a PhD from Brandeis (Harvard) in behavioral neuroscience needs to keep documents in front of her to make explosives, it must be a very poor standard of education. And if GIs can pass on guns to ‘dangerous criminals’ in custody, the superpower needs to have better trained, tougher soldiers to keep its global overlordship. It seems secret agents everywhere are adept at fabricating charges that cannot bear scrutiny.”
It will not be too much to say that the insinuation, that she had been hiding herself since 2003, is a travesty of the truth and an affront to people’s common sense. Dr Aafia’s case is a reminder of the grave injustice done to many people in the US detention facilities in Bagram in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and elsewhere.
My name is Prisoner 650,
Known I am as the “Grey Ghost”
Of Bagram, my home, remember me
In years of silence, in moments
Of indifference, created by you
Familiar are those walls and rooms
Of torture, of questions and of abuse
Familiar are those old echoes,
As all ideologies fall away in shame
Of protection of rights and freedom
Familiar I am to these accusations
As I am dragged, naked and blue
As I carry your foul breath, in eternity
Familiar I am to you and your ways
In labyrinth of twisted torture and routines
As my face begins to fade, in its forms
As this life becomes the burden in its disguise
My name is Prisoner 650,
Known I am not to the land of my birth
Forgotten they have all but few of my own
As I sit here through intervals,
When sanity returns, as this mind play games
Harder to distinguish what is worse
The torture and abuse or being forgotten
By my very own country, of my very own
Through subjugation of humanity
Familiar I am now, to these routines
As I see myself break in pieces,
As I see you, break in your emptiness
Remember me, as I walked with you
Tied down to my knees, in chains
To these graves, in your quest for gold
My name is prisoner 650
Known I am to them as Grey Ghost
Inside me the Bagram and its crimes
Outside this world, you and absent me
All available to you, all known to you
The ambiguity you created, in those cells
As I bath in that abuse in my dreams
The voices, eyes, and rotten crimes
As this civilization eats me slowly
Through hands foreign, through hands
Of my own, my own, my own
Know I of my worth, know I of my place
In these pedestals of humanity,
All gone, inside me, the absent light
As I search for the light, and cold showers
In the old walls of Bagram, familiar I am
To these mountains, my witnesses
Heard me, they have, like those graves
Unmarked, walk with me, sometimes
Feel you will all, what was it like?
Betrayal of my own, betrayal of my own
I am the prisoner 650, cold and silent
Charge me, it cannot be worse,
I have seen it all, I have lived it away
In your presence, the grey ghost
In there, lies me, the old self,
In unmarked graves, finally the freedom
My name is Prisoner 650
Stands here, in front of you
In its demise, in what you created
Against accusation, hollow and false
Pay you will, in this life or next
Familiar not to you, the old justice
My name is Prisoner 650
The grey ghost of Bagram
In my weakened body and soul,
As I carry these imprints
Of your investigations and abuse
Familiar I am to your ways and techniques
As you pronounce in comfort, the justice
Not much left in me, not much to say
Remember the first sentence,
The first utterance, long time ago
Of my innocence, as I screamed
As my skin pierced, as my soul raped
Now what justice will you serve me?
Not there may be, but still inside me
Bagram, and its grey ghost, and you.
I am the prisoner 650
Remember me, unfamiliar I am to you
To my own, in betrayal of my very own
I have no more questions, to ask
I am the Prisoner 650
Never will I be freed, inside me remains
The old landmarks of what I was once,
You have done your work well,
Declare me insane, as insane I am now
They call me the prisoner 650,
The Grey Ghost of Bagram, in your presence
My beauty carved out of torture and betrayal
These beautiful principles of protection
Remember me, how can you forget
In an unmarked grave, finally the freedom
I am the Prisoner 650, Grey Ghost of Bagram!