By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 5, 2008
NEW YORK, Sept. 4 -- The attorney for an American-trained behavioral scientist charged with trying to kill U.S. personnel in July said in court Thursday that she believes that her client was imprisoned and tortured for several years before the incident and now could be mentally incompetent.
Lawyer Elizabeth Fink told a federal judge in New York that Aafia Siddiqui, who disappeared in Pakistan with her three children in March 2003, needs a full psychological evaluation to determine whether she has post-traumatic stress disorder and is competent to help in her own defense. Fink also urged that Siddiqui, 36, be examined by experts on the effects of torture.
According to the government, which previously labeled her an al-Qaeda operative, Siddiqui surfaced July 17 with her eldest son, now 11, in an Afghanistan province after a five-year absence. The two were arrested by Afghan police, who said they received an anonymous tip that Siddiqui and her son were planning suicide bombings.
The next day, when a team of U.S. Army and FBI officials came to interview her, Siddiqui grabbed a team member's M-4 rifle and shot at the group, prosecutors said. She was wounded when one of the Americans returned fire.
Now in U.S. custody in New York, Siddiqui faces a possible life sentence if convicted of attempted murder and firearms charges. She does not currently face any charges related to terrorism, though U.S. authorities have claimed since 2004 that she was a facilitator for top al-Qaeda figures and linked her to Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the professed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Siddiqui did not appear in court for Thursday's arraignment. Her lawyer said that because of serious abdominal wounds, Siddiqui has refused to submit to a painful strip search that is required before she can leave federal prison. Federal prosecutor David Raskin told U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman that prison staff must impose appropriate security measures on Siddiqui.
But Fink asserted that Siddiqui shows signs of having been imprisoned and treated inhumanely for a long period of time.
"She's on the borderline," Fink said. "I believe this woman was kidnapped with her children and she's been held in custody -- either the Pakistani intelligence officials or some arm of our government. . . . I believe she was released in July and set up for this confrontation."
According to documents described in court by Fink, Siddiqui told prison staff that she feared her son was being starved and tortured, and asked them to take food off her tray and send it to her son in Afghanistan.
Siddiqui's son is a U.S. citizen but remains in the custody of Afghan authorities. An Afghan Foreign Ministry official said Wednesday that he will be released shortly, probably to Siddiqui's sister.
Fink read in court a portion of a Bureau of Prisons (BOP) evaluation of Siddiqui's behavior, which includes constant crying in her cell.
"Although her concerns about [her son] being starved and tortured sound somewhat paranoid on the surface, it is also possible that they represent an accurate portrayal of Ms. Siddiqui's experiences with detainment prior to arrival into BOP custody," a prison psychologist wrote. "Furthermore, Ms. Siddiqui's history of exposure to traumatic events is unknown. Therefore, PTSD and other acute Axis I disorders cannot be ruled out."
Siddiqui disappeared outside her parents' home in Karachi in late March 2003, weeks after the FBI sent out a global alert indicating that it was seeking to question her. The U.S. government has alleged that she had ties to major al-Qaeda figures, and later asserted that she helped open post office boxes and provide travel documents for terrorist plotters and had knowledge of chemical and biological weapons.
But friends and relatives say those claims do not fit with what they know about Siddiqui, who lived in the United States for 12 years, started a family here and did graduate work in social sciences at MIT and Brandeis. Her doctoral thesis explored how children learn.
Her disappearance -- and activists' claims that she was detained by Pakistani authorities and interrogated for a time by the CIA -- have sparked protests in Pakistan against the administration of former president Pervez Musharraf. The Justice Department and the CIA have said they knew nothing about Siddiqui's whereabouts before her arrest in July.
Correspondent Candace Rondeaux in Islamabad, Pakistan, and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.