[This is an abridged version of Hajj Mauri Saalakhan’s notes taken at the Sept. 23, 2010 sentencing of Dr. Afia Siddqui, edited from his copyrighted article with permission.]
Judge Berman began by walking the court through the accepted facts of the case. He noted, among other things, that it has never been definitively established why Aafia was in Afghanistan in July 2008. As he proceeded to outline the differing points of speculation as to why she may have been there, he failed to even mention the possibility that she may have been kidnapped and taken there! (I found this omission glaring to say the least!)
Berman spoke about the 2 lbs of sodium cyanide and the documents in English and Urdu outlining U.S. targets, and the means to conduct terrorist attacks, that Aafia was allegedly carrying in the bag that she had with her. (A bag that Aafia testified during the trial was given to her when she was briefly released in Afghanistan, in a severely weakened and disheveled state by her captors, after five years of secret and torturous imprisonment.)
There were a number of issues raised and statements made during the proceeding that generated many more questions for this observer.
According to the government, Aafia twice attempted to escape from Afghan custody; she had incriminating terrorism-related items in her possession, and yet she was permitted to remain unrestrained behind a curtain in a room of a police compound. Why? Does this scenario even make sense from a security standpoint?
Judge Berman made repeated references to Aafia’s mental state – acknowledging the damage done to her psyche when it suited him to do so; and ignoring the damage done when it didn’t. He also noted the frequent security searches that Aafia objected to during the time she was in New York’s custody awaiting trial.
The “security searches,” as he termed them, were the strip searches (which also included a cavity search) that this woman – already in maximum security confinement – was made to endure each time she was moved from one point to another for any reason! This treatment alone is severely damaging to the psyche of any modest woman – but especially for a hijab observing Muslim woman.
Berman stated that the jury convicted Aafia of all seven counts in the indictment; that Aafia articulated her belief during the trial that Israel was behind the attacks of 9/11; and that one of the employees at the Brooklyn detention center (where she was being held) was conspiring against America. Berman also accused Aafia’s oldest son (Ahmed) of making contradictory statements since his release; he noted that Aafia’s former husband (Mohamed Amjed Khan) claimed to have seen her on a number of occasions, in passing, during the time of her disappearance; and reiterated the point that there was “insufficient evidence in the record” to determine where she was between 2003-2008. (A process that he helped to facilitate.)
Berman asserted that Aafia came into contact with radical elements while in Boston, according to the testimony of a professor whose name I didn’t get. He noted how “complicated” the case had been, and referenced an incident during the trial that resulted in his decision to excuse a juror from the case who felt threatened by a conspicuously attired observer in the courtroom – an observer who made threatening and disruptive gestures before being removed by U.S Marshalls.
It is suspicious that this unknown person, who despite his arrest, was never identified in media reports, served to sow additional prejudice in the collective mind of the jury against the defendant in the dock.
The defense attorney, Dawn M. Cardi, began by stating she respectfully disagreed with Judge Berman’s recitation of the so-called “facts” surrounding this case. She noted how she had to get top secret clearance –- a very time consuming and cumbersome process — to have access to certain “top secret” documents, only to later be told, “there is no classified evidence relevant to this case!”
Cardi argued that Aafia suffered from “mental illness” and “diminished capacity” and, according to one of the experts at Carswell, where she spent the first few months of her return to the U.S. receiving medical treatment and psychological evaluations, she was possibly schizophrenic.
She also argued that while the government has repeatedly used Aafia’s academic major as an indication of the potential threat she posed to America, Aafia was not a “biologist.” Her academic focus, as reflected in the title of her thesis, was on how children learn. She also noted that the jury found Aafia not guilty on “premeditation” (a finding that Judge Berman chose to ignore).
Cardi also noted the Wiki-leaks reference to Dr. Siddiqui. According to these documents, Aafia was reportedly reaching for the gun (M4 rifle) when she was shot! In referencing the judge’s assertion that, “There is no question about the jury’s verdict,” Cardi insisted that there were indeed questions about the verdict. She spoke about the manipulation of fear, and asked for as maximum sentence of 12 years without the enhancements.
The government’s closing arguments could be summed up in the words of lead prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher LaVigne (who stated, in the government’s successful pursuit of a Life sentence): “Any fear that was injected in this courtroom came from witnesses like Captain Robert Snyder of the United States army… looking down the barrel of a loaded gun and believing he would die… This [Aafia’s alleged assault on U.S. personnel] was not some random act. On that day the bottom line is, she saw her chance and she took it.”
In my humble opinion, this narrative was successful — despite all of the contradictory material evidence and testimony in Aafia’s favor — for three reasons: (a) the way this case was consistently portrayed in the mainstream media; (b) the court’s decision to bar certain exculpatory testimony that could have proved Aafia’s innocence; (c) and the failure of Aafia’s well paid [by the government of Pakistan] defense team to vigorously put on the type of defense that a political trial of this nature required!
Aafia’s defense kept emphasizing mental illness, and at one point Judge Berman interrupted to alternately raised doubts about the severity of Aafia’s mental state and then raised doubts about the prospect of Aafia getting any better.
Aafia flatly rejected the mental illness defense, defiantly stating in a strong, clear voice: “I am not paranoid. I am not mentally sick, I disagree with that! (While there is no question that serious damage has been done to our sister’s psyche, I personally believe Aafia Siddiqui is very, very sane –- in a morbidly insane world!) While Berman spoke of how Aafia consistently failed to cooperate with “authorities” – he said nothing about the conditions of confinement which, no doubt, factored into Aafia’s failure to “cooperate.”
Aafia began her address to the court by insisting she was not concerned with her own welfare -– she is content with the qadr (or will of God), and that she is not being tortured. (She did not say she was never tortured; she said she was not being tortured at present. Those of us who have followed this case closely are aware that Aafia was tortured when she was secretly held. Further, Aafia has been imprisoned in the U.S., for the past two plus years, under conditions that I believe violate our nation’s constitutional guarantee against “cruel and unusual punishment.”)
Aafia accused someone (by the name of Mr. Desmond, I believe) of plotting against the United States. (This may have been a sign of mental unbalance. ALLAH knows best.) She again referenced the “secret prison(s)” in which she had previously been held, a secret imprisonment that the U.S. government adamantly refuses to acknowledge.
Aafia spoke about terrorists who were masquerading as Hispanics to do America harm, and of how DNA testing can be done to determine the “pedigree” of a person. She also spoke about not being against all Israelis, but that there is an element among them that are blameworthy.
She noted at one point, in a rather light-hearted way, that most of the teeth in her mouth were not her own, because of the beatings she endured while she was secretly held. She also claimed that one of her doctors had initially diagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was then pressured into saying otherwise (i.e. that Aafia was schizophrenic).
Aafia testified to how –- before being brought to the U.S. — she would regurgitate to the FBI the things that she thought they wanted to hear (a mind “game” she called it), in the belief that by doing so she would be able to get her children back. She passionately emphasized that she is against all wars.
She spoke about a dream she had involving Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him), and she advised the Taliban to put mercy in their hearts. She referenced [British journalist] Yvonne Ridley’s capture and subsequent voluntary conversion. She said in her dream she saw the Prophet enter a room with American soldiers who were captives of war. The Prophet (pbuh) spoke consoling words to them. Her advice to Muslims was to not hate American soldiers.
She also (curiously for this writer) spoke about Israeli-Americans who had her daughter for years and never raped her. When she said this I wondered if this was something she had been told, or was this a conclusion that she had come to as a sort of psychological coping mechanism? (Surely ALLAH know best.) Moments later Aafia’s voice broke –- when she touched briefly upon the anguish experienced by a mother who doesn’t know where her children are.
In his ruling Judge Berman proceeded to outline the reasoning behind the barbaric sentence he was about to impose on Dr. Aafia Siddiqui. At the heart of his thinking was his stated belief that rehabilitation for Aafia was virtually impossible, as he proceeded to impose “enhancements” that would significantly magnify her sentence.
1. He found that the “hate crime enhancement” applied due to the national origin of Aafia’s alleged victims (U.S. personnel).
2. He found that the “official victim enhancement” applied because the alleged intended victims were government officials.
3. He found that the “terrorism enhancement” applied because the alleged offense was intended to influence or punish the government. (Keep in mind, Aafia was not officially charged with even one terrorism count in the indictment; and yet she received a terrorism enhancement! Berman feebly argued that the defendant’s purpose or intent factors into the equation.)
4. He also found that a “criminal history enhancement” applied in the case. (I’m still trying to figure out the rationalization behind that one.)
5. He also found that an “obstruction of justice enhancement” applied, because Aafia gave (in his view) false testimony during the trial.
6. Berman also found Aafia guilty of “premeditation,” based on the claim that when Aafia allegedly fired the M4 rifle at the agents and soldiers in 2008, she screamed, ‘I want to kill Americans,’ and ‘Death to America!’
When, in an embarrassing response to Judge Berman’s deliberation over the issue of whether or not Aafia fired the M4 rifle, one of the prosecutors stood up to say the jury did not find that Aafia fired a weapon, the judge clumsily remarked that he found that she did!
After being hit with what constitutes a mandatory life sentence (86 years), Dr. Aafia Siddiqui was the embodiment of faith and grace. She again partially turned toward the witnesses in the courtroom seated behind her, and counseled the Muslims to not become “emotional.”
At one point Aafia addressed the judge’s bias at the conclusion of the trial (when he charged, or instructed the empanelled jury before their deliberations). She reminded him of how he had emphasized to the jury that if they found that there was a gun in the room that Aafia potentially had access to, that they had to find her guilty on that particular gun related count.
What then followed became a lesson in faith and spiritual perseverance, demonstrating that Aafia was clearly in a much better place, mentally and spiritually, than were Judge Richard Berman and his fellow persecutors. Aafia counseled those present, and those who would get the news later, not to be angry at anyone involved in this case –- not even the judge!
“This will shock the Muslims: I love America too…I love the whole world…”
“I am one person, and the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, forgave all of his personal enemies. Forgive everybody in my case, please…the world is full of injustices…and also forgive Judge Berman.”
“I don’t want any bloodshed…I want peace and to end all wars.”
This was some of the nasiha (sincerely-given advice/counsel) offered by this incredible, long suffering, 38-year-old Muslim woman. Berman feebly expressed his gratitude for Aafia’s good wishes, and said he wished all defendants were like her.
When Judge Berman informed the defendant of her right to appeal his verdict, Aafia’s response was: “I appeal to God…and he hears me.”
A closing thought of a personal nature
I left that federal courthouse in New York feeling like I had witnessed something truly amazing. Despite the anticipated outcome, I felt inspired, and that a tremendous weight had been lifted off of me. It had just recently come to my attention earlier that same week how much anger I had been carrying around inside of me because of this case (and many others like it).
It wasn’t just Aafia Siddiqui. The anger I felt, the anger that had reached a boiling point with this particular case (involving this sister), is an anger that had been building up for years! It was a volcanic accumulation of all of the pain, tears, anger and frustration that I had been exposed to (and often-times experienced) going back many years. Aafia Siddiqui’s case was simply the one that brought it all to a head.
Later that night, I pleaded with Almighty ALLAH (The Beneficent, The Merciful) to help me deal with that internalized rage…and a few days later, ALLAH answered my prayer.
Thank you Aafia.
El-Hajj Mauri’ Saalakhan