Alumna convicted in terrorism trial
Shot M4 rifle at U.S. military personnel in Iraq prison
Aafia Siddiqui ’95 was convicted on Wednesday of trying to kill American military officers while she was in custody in Afghanistan, capping a trial that drew notice for its terrorist implications as well as its theatrics.
A jury in United States District Court in Manhattan found Siddiqui guilty of all seven counts against her, including attempted murder, after three days of deliberations. She faces life in prison when she is sentenced in May.
The verdict puts a final mark on one of the more twisted yet fascinating trials of a terror suspect, whose back story has attracted the attention of human rights groups as well as federal prosecutors.
In the course of the 14-day trial, Siddiqui was ejected numerous times for her outbursts, two jurors were removed from the case and one observer was arrested. There were suggestions of “secret prisons,” and machine guns were waved around as evidence.
And after jurors delivered their verdict, Siddiqui was heard from again. As the jurors began leaving the courtroom, Siddiqui, her face mostly covered in a cream-colored scarf, turned in her chair to face them. Holding her right index finger in the air, she said: “This is a verdict coming from Israel and not from America. That’s where the anger belongs.”
Though the outburst prompted marshals to remove Siddiqui, 37, from the courtroom, she returned as Judge Richard M. Berman and lawyers for both sides discussed a sentencing date. She spoke again, though her comments were directed at the judge. “They’re not my attorneys,” said Siddiqui, before she was led out.
Siddiqui, who was described in 2004 by Robert Mueller, director of the F.B.I. as “an Al Qaeda operative and facilitator,” raised suspicions when she and her three children vanished in Pakistan in 2003.
She did not turn up again until 2008 in Ghazni, Afghanistan. Her eldest child was with her; the other two are missing.
She was taken into custody in Ghazni after local authorities became suspicious of her loitering outside the provincial governor’s compound.
While in custody, on July 18, 2008, prosecutors said, Siddiqui grabbed an M4 automic rifle from a police station floor and fired on Army officers and F.B.I. agents. She was shot in the abdomen.
Her competency — first to stand trial, and then to take the stand — has been a major point of contention in the case.
But after Judge Berman allowed Siddiqui to testify last week, she claimed that assertions that she had fired a weapon at officers was “the biggest lie.”
The weapon was never in her hands, said Siddiqui, who explained that she was merely trying to escape from the station because she feared being tortured. She had been arrested the day before; in her purse were instructions on making explosives and a list of New York landmarks, including the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge and the Empire State Building.
But the charges in the case were not terrorism-related and were restricted to the events in a 300-square-foot room of the Ghazni police station, which is why prosecutors hinged their arguments on the testimony of nine people who were in it or close by.
One of those witnesses was a chief warrant officer, whose name was withheld at the prosecution’s request. He limped to the stand using a cane because of injuries sustained in an unrelated roadside bombing in Afghanistan.
Defense lawyers argued that an absence of bullets, casings or residue from the M4 suggested it had not been shot. They used a video to show that two holes in a wall supposedly caused by the M4 had been there before July 18.
They also pointed out inconsistencies in the testimony from the nine government witnesses, who at times gave conflicting accounts of how many people were in the room, where they were sitting or standing and how many shots were fired.
Siddiqui’s lawyers said they had not decided whether to appeal. They suggested that prosecutors had played to New Yorkers’ anxieties about terror attacks.
“This is not a just and right verdict,” Elaine Whitfield Sharp, one of Siddiqui’s lawyers, said outside the courtroom. “In my opinion this was based on fear but not fact.”
As that verdict was read on Wednesday, 11 guards stood around the edges of the wood-paneled courtroom.
“Today, a jury has brought Aafia Siddiqui to justice in a court of law for trying to murder American military and law enforcement officers, as well as their Afghan colleagues,” prosecutors said in a written statement.
Perhaps the most riveting day of the trial was a week ago, when Siddiqui took the stand over the objections of her lawyers, who had fought her testimony until the last minute. Siddiqui recited a long list of academic achievements, including a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Brandeis University.
But she suggested that her studies of chemicals did not equip her to be a terrorist. “To answer your question, I don’t know how to make a dirty bomb,” she said, adding that she “couldn’t kill a rat myself.”
In response, prosecutors asked her about six hours of target practice she completed while she was an undergraduate at MIT, which a witness verified.
One of the most sensational parts of Siddiqui’s testimony was her claim of being held in a secret prison.
Siddiqui and her children, according to Sharp, were taken at gunpoint by forces backed by the United States in 2003 while traveling in Karachi, Pakistan.
Sharp said these events, and a traumatic subsequent detention, could explain Siddiqui’s outbursts.
She added that her client was not anti-Semitic but pro-Palestinian. And she sent a message through reporters, some of whom were from Pakistan: “Dr. Siddiqui wants you all to know that she doesn’t want there to be violent protests or violent reprisals in Pakistan over this verdict.”