NY Court Hears New Reports on Aafia Siddiqui’s Mental Health
To government psychiatrists, Aafia Siddiqui ’95 has been faking symptoms of mental illness, hoping to avoid a criminal trial on charges of trying to kill American soldiers and F.B.I. agents in Afghanistan.
But to a psychologist retained by Siddiqui’s lawyers, she suffers from a genuine mental disorder, and is incompetent to stand trial.
These clashing descriptions are contained in newly filed psychological evaluations in the case of Siddiqui, 37, a Pakistani neuroscientist who was brought to Manhattan last summer for prosecution.
After a court-ordered evaluation found that she was unfit for trial as a result of a mental disease, a judge ordered her sent to the Federal Medical Center Carswell in Fort Worth for further evaluation.
On Monday, the judge, Richard M. Berman of Federal District Court in Manhattan, took up the competency issue, hearing testimony from experts who have evaluated her. Judge Berman did not rule on the competency question, and asked for further filings from both sides.
Siddiqui declared in a series of rambling, often disjointed outbursts that she had not shot anyone and was not against the United States.
“I didn’t fire any bullets,” she said at one point.
“I’m really not against America. I never was. I still am not,” she said later.
During the hearing in Federal District Court in Manhattan, psychological experts differed on whether Siddiqui had faked symptoms of mental illness or suffered from a genuine mental disorder, and if she was competent to stand trial.
But as the experts vied to talk about her mental state, it was Siddiqui who seemed to be most intent on getting in the first and last words, and many in between.
“I’m not psychotic — I can assure you I am not,” she said in a discourse after the cross-examination of a psychologist who had concluded that she was suffering from mental illness and was not competent to stand trial.
During another expert’s testimony, when the discussion turned to her not eating in prison, she interjected, “It was Ramadan, just for the record.”
“Excuse me,” said the judge, Richard M. Berman. She replied, “I didn’t ask to come here.”
Siddiqui was taken into custody last July in Ghazni, Afghanistan, after she was found loitering outside the provincial governor’s compound with suspicious items in her handbag, the authorities have said. The items included handwritten notes that referred to a “mass casualty attack,” and listed various landmarks like the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty, an indictment says.
While she was detained, the indictment charges, she picked up an unsecured rifle and fired at least two shots toward a soldier who was part of an American team of F.B.I. agents and military personnel who were about to question her. No one was hit. She was charged with attempted murder and other charges, and has pleaded not guilty.
The defense’s psychologist, L. Thomas Kucharski, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, concluded that Siddiqui was suffering from a delusional disorder and depression. He cited various statements, like one in which she said she had been injected with a substance designed to make her break the Ramadan fast, as examples of “her delusional thought process.”
There was “very strong evidence” that she was not malingering, he wrote.
But a government expert, Gregory B. Saathoff, a psychiatry professor at the University of Virginia, said because of Siddiqui’s desire to return to Pakistan and her interest in avoiding prosecution, she “has had a strong motivation to appear incompetent.”
“She has most likely fabricated reported psychiatric symptoms,” he wrote.
Another prosecution expert, Sally C. Johnson, a psychiatry professor at the University of North Carolina, wrote that although Siddiqui appeared frail and timid, “her potential for aggression towards herself or others might be underestimated,” and she “could perceive herself as martyr for a cause.” Johnson recommended that “adequate precautions be taken to protect her and other individuals throughout the resolution of her legal proceedings.”
Siddiqui, who studied at MIT and received a graduate degree in neuroscience from Brandeis, wore a white fabric head covering that left only her eyes visible.
Her outbursts alternated with periods of quiet, sometimes seeming to listen intently, sometimes placing her head down on her arms on the table. As the afternoon progressed, her commentary grew heated at times, as she touched on war and peace, Zionists and Jews, and her anger at being strip-searched. She occasionally even turned to address the spectators.
On the United States, she said, “America as a nation has been framed to look bad.” She added later: “I want to make peace with the United States of America. I’m not an enemy. I never was.”