U.S. ignores “innocent until proven guilty” for alleged terrorists

Marium Chandna Jan 19, 2009
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One of the most laudable tenets of American law is the assurance that anyone accused of a crime is “innocent until proven guilty.” However, this fundamental legal right seems to have taken a reverse path in the post 9/11 world, especially when it comes to Muslims. These racially targeted individuals are more often “guilty until proven innocent,” and this is a rather disturbing vein in the realm of American democracy and international human rights.

A hair-raising account of such injustice is the case of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Brandeis alumnus from Pakistan pronounced by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as “the new face of al Qaeda.” Siddiqui is currently in U.S. custody after being detained for five years at a U.S. military detention center in Afghanistan. Siddiqui was beaten, repeatedly raped, forced to be strip-searched in front of male officers every time she had a visitor, and is currently in critical health. While the Islamabad and Sindh High Courts of Pakistan aggressively seek Siddiqui’s repatriation to Pakistan, the Pakistani government’s promises to ensure justice for Siddiqui resonate a hollow ring.

The mentally and physically disabled Siddiqui is considered a “high-risk” criminal accused of shooting at U.S. military personnel while in custody in Afghanistan last year. As Pakistanis await Siddiqui’s trial, many questions remain unanswered. Who is Aafia Siddiqui — a dangerous al Qaeda operative or an innocent woman who has been subjected to extreme mortification at the hands of the politically motivated? And what of her husband, who is a free man working in Karachi and who, according to the FBI, was a suspect even before she was?

Siddiqui initially moved to the U.S. from Pakistan in 1990 to pursue her undergraduate studies at MIT. She joined her school’s Muslim Students Association (MSA) and participated in charity for Islamic organizations. After spending over 10 years in the U.S., during which Siddiqui married anesthesiologist Amjad Khan, Siddiqui returned to Karachi with her three children. Khan, who was initially perceived as open-minded, had started to impose restrictions on Siddiqui and insisted that their children be raised in Pakistan according to strict Islamic principles, an incompatibility that led to Khan divorcing Siddiqui.

Meanwhile, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, an alleged al Qaeda terrorist who admitted to plotting the Sept. 11 attacks, was arrested by the FBI in Pakistan. Despite the charges against Mohammed, U.S. intelligence did not hesitate in taking his word when he “gave up” Siddiqui’s name as one of his associates in the terrorist attacks. Later that month, Siddiqui and her three children mysteriously disappeared, and while American media outlets rushed to announce the capture of a possible al Qaeda terrorist, the U.S. and Pakistan claimed ignorance of Siddiqui’s whereabouts. And here is where the loopholes begin to emerge and make this case the body of complications that it is.

To this date, there is no official record of what Mohammed allegedly stated to U.S. intelligence. The claim that Siddiqui’s arrest is linked to Mohammed was only mentioned by the U.S. in passing when the Pakistani media and human rights activists bombarded the international community with demands of her whereabouts. Furthermore, soon after Siddiqui’s disappearance in 2003, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan maintained that the U.S. had nothing to do with the missing woman or her children.

Secondly, the U.S.’s assertion that Siddiqui was not arrested until 2008, when she mysteriously appeared outside the Governor’s house in Ghazni with a bag containing bomb-making instructions, a map of New York City, and diagrams of the Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge, is not just highly flawed but also childish. If Siddiqui was such a shrewd terrorist, why would she bring her recipe-book to a monitored site? More importantly, the Governor declined her arrest outside his house.

Another aspect of this case that remains unexamined is the role of Khan, Siddiqui’s ex-husband, who did not make any effort to find his wife, nor to speak to the media in her absence.

Siddiqui was briefly interrogated with Khan about the money she donated to Islamic charities — which proves that the FBI already had its eyes on the woman who “disappeared” for five years. After five years of torturing an innocent woman, the U.S. authorities could not simultaneously let her go and save themselves global embarrassment — what would that mean for the volumes of women’s rights and liberation that the U.S. advocates to “barbaric” third-world nations? Thus, the terror suspect was metamorphosed into a criminal who attacked a member of the U.S. military, a religious fanatic that challenged American freedom.

In the Pakistani political sphere, things are murkier. Bilal Musharraf, the son of former President Pervez Musharraf, is accused of selling Siddiqui to the FBI for a lump sum of bounty money. If Siddiqui has already been sold to the FBI, then Gilani’s plea is nothing but a performance to hush Pakistani sentiments on the issue. An American lawyer who spoke anonymously told Pakistan’s Daily News that even though charges against Siddiqui are clearly baseless, “the Americans will not let her go.”

Siddiqui’s case represents a classic model of parallel disparity. U.S. authorities are taking extreme measures in the name of protecting its citizens — without conforming to international norms of human rights they so boldly advocate to the rest of the world — and the Pakistani government is failing to ensure the rights and protection of its citizens. Taking precaution against potential terrorist attacks is justifiable, but not to the extent where the cop becomes the thief.

Following the closure of Guantanamo Bay, the Obama administration must make a sincere effort to rectify its anti-terror legislation concerning suspects whose guilt has not been proven. Whether Siddiqui has deliberately been marked out as the scapegoat in some bigger plan or not, Pakistan must not negotiate its “sovereign partnership” with the U.S. at the expense of its citizens. And it would be a shame if the U.S. allowed this infant democracy to strip its citizens of human rights.