Doubt cast on U.S. version of terror suspect's arrest

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 5, 2008 

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — As U.S. authorities took a purported al Qaida operative to court on attempted murder and assault charges Tuesday in New York, her family, the Afghan police and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan cast doubts on the accuracy of the American story.

On Monday, the Department of Justice announced that Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani woman who was educated in the United States, had been taken into custody in mid-July in Afghanistan.

She was arraigned in court in New York Tuesday, and her case has inflamed anti-American sentiment in Pakistan and triggered street protests against Siddiqui's detention.

According to the criminal complaint filed in the Southern District of New York, Siddiqui was arrested on July 17 by Afghan security forces in Ghazni province in eastern Afghanistan with her 12-year-old son. She was found with documentation on explosives, descriptions of U.S. landmarks and various chemical substances, the complaint says, and a day later, she was handed over to U.S. intelligence and military officials.

The complaint says that she got hold of an officer's M-4 rifle in an interrogation room and fired two shots, which missed. The officer used his pistol to fire back and hit her at least once in the torso, according to the charges.

Afghan police, however, said that U.S. soldiers demanded that local police hand over Siddiqui, but they refused, according to a report from Ghazni by the Reuters news agency. When the Americans disarmed the Afghan police at gunpoint, Siddiqui approached the Americans, complaining of mistreatment by the police, according to this account.

The U.S. troops, according to an unnamed Afghan police officer, "thinking that she had explosives and would attack them as a suicide bomber, shot her and took her," Reuters reported.

Siddiqui's family, meanwhile, alleges that she'd been in secret custody since she disappeared five years ago from the Pakistani city of Karachi with her three children, and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent organization, called the U.S. account a "cock and bull story."

A Justice Department spokesman, Dean Boyd, said in Washington that the allegations weren't true. "We stand by the facts as alleged in the criminal complaint filed in court," he said. "In addition, suggestions that Siddiqui has been in U.S. custody for five years are not accurate. She was detained on July 17, 2008, as alleged in the criminal complaint."

Legal experts in the United States said the case against Siddiqui might reflect a new willingness by the Bush administration to prosecute some terror suspects in federal court rather than before military commissions at the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

However, they said that while the administration has suffered a series of legal setbacks in its prosecution of the war on terror, notably from the U.S. Supreme Court, they saw no evidence of a major shift in detention policy.

Siddiqui's family and activists think that she was in the hands of Pakistani intelligence and then handed over to the United States. Several former detainees at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan have said they heard the screams of a woman, who's been dubbed "The Gray Lady of Bagram." Fauzia Siddiqui, Aafia Siddiqui's sister, and Yvonne Ridley, a British journalist turned human rights campaigner, said they think the cries came from Aafia Siddiqui, who they contend was physically and sexually abused at the air base.

"This is the real crime of terror here," said Fauzia Siddiqui.

I.A. Rehman, the director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said the American version of the arrest didn't hold up.

"Obviously she was arrested in 2003, but we don't know at what stage she was handed over to the Americans," said Rehman.

The Pentagon has denied that any women are held at Bagram.

It's unclear what's happened to her son or her other two children.

Siddiqui has been on the FBI and CIA wanted list for years. According to the old allegations made against Siddiqui, she rented a post office box on behalf of al Qaida suspect Majid Khan, worked as a fixer in the Boston area for alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and raised funds for al Qaida through a diamond transaction in Liberia.

A Pentagon jury of six U.S. military officers is now deliberating the war crimes case of Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden's driver, in the first contested U.S. war crimes trial since World War II. Conviction could bring life imprisonment.

"It is a little ironic that while the government is trying to prove the military commissions process is legitimate in the Hamdan trial that the next person they arrest immediately goes into the federal court system," said David Glazier, a professor who studies the law of war at Loyola Law School Los Angeles. "That sends an interesting mixed signal."

Even as the administration has struggled to defend its detention policies, prosecutors are better funded and have been granted more powers since the September 11 terrorist attacks to go after terrorism suspects in criminal courts, said Matthew Waxman, the deputy assistant Secretary of Defense for detainee affairs from August 2004 to December 2005.

"Using an enemy combatant approach has become harder," he said. "In some ways, using a criminal approach has become easier."

Elaine Whitfield Sharp, a U.S. attorney representing Siddiqui, didn't return calls.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent in Islamabad. Marisa Taylor contributed to this report.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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