- Afghanistan - al Qaeda - Pakistan - USA
A Pakistani mother who graduated from a top US university, then vanished five years ago, was charged Tuesday in New York with attempted murder of US officers in Afghanistan, in a case prompting protests from her homeland.
Suffering from a bullet wound sustained during the alleged assault in Afghanistan, Aafia Siddiqui, 36, had to be helped into the New York courtroom to face murder and assault charges.
A petite and frail figure wrapped in a maroon scarf, Siddiqui shook her head in apparent bewilderment as the judge read out the criminal complaint.
She had been flown from Afghanistan into New York's JFK Airport Monday after being formally arrested earlier that day, officials and her lawyers said.
US officials claim Siddiqui, who studied neuroscience in the United States during the 1990s, before returning home to Pakistan, is an Al-Qaeda operative.
On July 18 she allegedly seized a US serviceman's rifle during interrogation in Afghanistan and opened fire.
Her transfer from Afghanistan to Manhattan is painted by officials as an example of the United States' long reach in a "war on terror."
But defense lawyers say Siddiqui has for the past five years been held captive -- possibly in a secret US or allied prison -- and that attempted murder charges were invented as a pretext to bring her to US territory.
The defense asserts that Siddiqui, an honors graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), was physically incapable of assaulting officers at an Afghan police station, as alleged.
"Picture this woman, who is very tiny, and ask yourself how she engaged in armed conflict with six military men," said defense lawyer Elaine Whitfield Sharp.
"It's not plausible. It's not credible and there's nothing to support it," Elizabeth Fink, another lawyer, said. Siddiqui had suffered "enormous human rights violations," Fink said.
Siddiqui, who was also named in a 2004 US list of suspects linked to Al-Qaeda, faces a maximum sentence of 20 years prison on each charge, if found guilty.
She will attend a bail hearing on Monday and is scheduled for a preliminary hearing on August 19, when a judge will decide whether there is sufficient ground to hold a trial.
According to the prosecution's complaint sheet, Siddiqui was first detained by Afghan police on July 17 in possession of bomb-making instructions and suspicious liquids.
While undergoing questioning the next day she allegedly seized a US army M-4 rifle and attacked a group of US servicemen, including two FBI agents, two US army officers, and army interpreters.
Allegedly she missed and was shot in return fire by a serviceman.
"Despite being shot, Siddiqui struggled with the officers when they tried to subdue her; she struck and kicked them while shouting in English that she wanted to kill Americans," the complaint reads.
Siddiqui's supporters in Pakistan say that she is the real victim and was likely held by US or allied forces ever since her disappearance, along with her three young children, in Karachi in 2003.
"What a mockery that after five years in detention Aafia is suddenly discovered in Afghanistan," her younger sister Fauzia Siddiqui told a news conference in Karachi.
"Aafia was tortured for five years until one day US authorities announce that they have found her in Afghanistan," her sister claimed.
Her lawyer, Sharp, said Siddiqui had no idea of who held her and where. She said her client was abused during her confinement without indicating how.
"She's very traumatized, very fragile. She doesn't know where her children are," Sharp said.
Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, has lodged a request with US authorities for consular access to Siddiqui, the state-run Associated Press of Pakistan news agency reported.
Siddiqui is a devout Muslim, according to her lawyers, and while living in the United States took active part in fund raising for the kind of Islamic charities Washington claims provide cover for Al-Qaeda funding.
She also has a long relationship with the United States. On graduating from MIT she took a doctorate in neuro-cognitive science at Brandeis University, near Boston.
US media reports have referred, erroneously, to her being a trained biologist, with skills applicable to making biological weapons.
She returned to Pakistan in late 2002 after divorcing her husband, who was briefly detained and questioned by the FBI in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Between her divorce and disappearance she is reported to have married a nephew of the alleged September 11 mastermind, Khaled Sheikh Mohammed.
However, defense lawyers question this and say any information extracted from Mohammed is tainted because he was tortured while being held by the CIA.