MANHATTAN (CN) – A federal judge sentenced 38-year-old Pakistani neuroscientist Dr. Aafia Siddiqui to 86 years in prison for trying to kill U.S. soldiers and federal agents while in custody in Afghanistan two years ago. The announcement by U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman was met with a cry of “shame” inside the courtroom, approval from federal prosecutors, and protests from supporters who maintain her innocence.
Crowds went through two rounds of security to fill the courtroom, and spectators lined nearly every inch of benches. Journalist and sketch artists were directed to sit in the same box where a jury unanimously convicted Siddiqui of attempted murder and related crimes.
Judge Berman opened the proceedings by stating that it was difficult to arrive at a “fair and reasonable” sentence in this case, “especially for a woman of Dr. Siddiqui’s talents, intelligence and possibilities.”
Educated at MIT and Brandeis, Siddiqui does not appear to fit the profile of a woman the New York Daily News has called “Lady al-Qaida.”
The government claimed that Siddiqui tried to use her scientific knowledge for biological and chemical warfare. But her defense attorney, Dawn M. Cardi, countered that Siddiqui studied cognitive behavior, a field with no military application.
“Dr. Siddiqui is an enigma,” Cardi said.
Indeed, Berman spoke at length about the apparent inconsistencies, paradoxes and remarkable facts of Siddiqui’s case and behavior.
The judge recounted how Siddiqui invoked Zionist conspiracies, demanded that her jury undergo genetic testing for Jewish heritage, and then sent a letter to his chambers, claiming, “I am not against Israelis or any people, certainly not the Jewish people.”
Siddiqui has had a strained relationship with her defense team, trying to fire them during her trial, refusing to speak to them in prison before the sentencing, and shaking her head throughout her attorney’s plea for a shorter sentence.
She even strongly objected to her attorneys’ filing an appeal on her behalf.
Still, Cardi called her a “peaceful soul,” and Siddiqui spent much of her speaking time urging her supporters to reject violence and “forgive everyone in my case” in the trial that she condemned.
“Forgive the men who shot me. Forgive Judge Berman,” Siddiqui urged.
A devout Muslim, Siddiqui cheerfully told the judge it was “not of crucial importance” that she knew she might face the rest of her life in prison, “because God has put contentment in my heart.”
The facts of the case are as intriguing as the woman herself.
During what Judge Berman called the “gap years” of her biography between 2003 and 2008, the government says Siddiqui was recruiting for the Taliban and planning attacks on major U.S. landmarks, but she was never charged on these grounds.
Her supporters say that, during this period, she was abducted in a taxi, separated from her three children and tortured in an Afghani secret prison.
Judge Berman insisted that there was “no evidence” of torture in the court records, but Cardi replied that the government would not provide documents related to her client even after she went through Top Secret clearance. She added that details may emerge after journalists submit FOIA requests in years to come, but government disclosure is “not going to happen voluntarily.”
Regardless of what happened during the gap years, nobody disputes that Siddiqui was arrested in Afghanistan on July 2008.
Berman said interrogators thought Siddiqui was a terrorist with firearm training, knew she “tried to escape twice,” and believed she was planning attacks on Plum Island, the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, Wall Street and the Brooklyn Bridge. Yet the judge said she was left “unguarded and unrestrained” next to an unattended M-4 assault rifle.
Although no forensic evidence was recovered, government witnesses said Siddiqui picked up the rifle, shouted profanities and anti-American epithets, opened fire and missed her targets.
The interrogators shot her twice in the abdomen, took her to a U.S. medical base, and arrested her on seven counts of attempting to murder U.S. nationals officials, assault and other charges.
Cardi described how, throughout the trial, Siddiqui has been kept in a prison where she has spent 23 hours a day in a prison with “no light, no windows, a toilet, nothing on the walls,” with one hour to exercise.
It is a “horrible, horrifying existence,” Cardi said.
Yet Siddiqui, when given a chance to speak, said, “I am well in prison.”
At one point, she removed the white hijab covering her mouth and laughed as she readjusted one of her false teeth that had fallen out. She lost the real ones, she said, while beaten at the secret prison.
However, she said the rumors that she is still being tortured are “lies” that are “emotionally disturbing people overseas,” and cited a Quranic verse that she said obligated Muslims to check their journalistic sources before believing such accusations.
Instead of making any plea in her defense, she said she wanted to “share a dream” of the Prophet Mohammed and Jesus, talked about wartime experiences in Bosnia, offered to convey a message to President Obama to bring peace to Afghanistan and again talked about 9/11 conspiracies.
Her defense lawyers have long argued, against their client’s wishes, that she suffers “diminished capacity” and has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and delusions.
“No, I am not sick,” Siddiqui replied, although she admitted there is “too much stuff in my mind.”
Calculating the verdict, Judge Berman said the government’s sentencing guidelines call for “enhancements” for hate crimes, official victims, terrorism and obstructing the administration of justice.
When he announced the sentence, a shout reverberated, “Shame! Shame! Shame upon the court!”
It was the voice of Sara Flounders, one of the founders of the International Action Center, who remained quiet for the rest of the hearing after being warned by the judge that another outburst would get her ejected.
Her organization held a demonstration calling for Siddiqui’s freedom and Pakistani repatriation outside the federal courthouse. Flounders stepped aside for an interview while a group of circling protesters chanted, “Stop the drones! End the war! Free Aafia Siddiqui!”
“This trial should not have taken place,” Flounders said, insisting it was a Pakistani matter. “Nobody was injured, except for Siddiqui.”
Another organization called the International Justice Network, run by Siddiqui’s official spokeswoman, Tina Foster, sent out a prepared statement that read: “Dr. Aafia Siddiqui — who has never caused harm to anyone — has now been condemned to spend the rest of her life in a maximum security prison in the United States. This sentence is not only unjust because of its harshness to Dr. Siddiqui – but also because its impact on her three small children who may never see their mother again.”
At one point during the trial, Siddiqui’s voice began to shake as she said, “You don’t know what a mother goes through when she’s missing her children.”
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement, “As a unanimous jury found beyond a reasonable doubt, Aafia Siddiqui attempted to murder Americans serving in Afghanistan, as well as their Afghan colleagues. She now faces the stiff consequences of her violent actions.”
Although Judge Berman found her sane, Siddiqui will serve her sentence at FMC Carswell, a federal prison for the criminally insane in Texas.