In sifting through the avalanche of US diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks, only the Guardian, in the Western media, has picked up on cables from Islamabad relating to the case of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, the Pakistani neuroscientist who disappeared with her three young children in Karachi on March 30, 2003, and did not reappear until July 17, 2008, in Ghazni, Afghanistan, where she was reportedly arrested by Afghan forces for acting strangely, allegedly carrying a bag that contained a list of US targets for terrorist attacks as well as bomb-making instructions and assorted chemicals. When US soldiers turned up, Dr. Siddiqui then reportedly seized a gun and shot at them. Although she failed to hit her targets, at point-blank range, she was herself shot twice in the abdomen, and was then rendered to the United States, where she was put on trial for attempted murder, and was convicted and given an 86-year prison sentence in September this year.
Dr. Siddiqui’s supporters, and many commentators — myself included — who have examined her story have, for many years, had reason to doubt the official narrative about her capture in 2008, and her whereabouts for the previous five years.
While both the Pakistani and US authorities repeatedly denied that Dr. Siddiqui was in their custody between 2003 and 2008, and this is reiterated in one of the cables released by Wikileaks, in which US diplomats in Pakistan stated that “Bagram officials have assured us that they have not been holding Siddiqui for the last four years, as has been alleged,” several former prisoners — and one still held — have stated that they saw her in Bagram. The following exchange is an excerpt from an interview conducted by former prisoner Moazzam Begg with Binyam Mohamed, the British resident who was subjected to torture in Pakistan, Morocco and Afghanistan, after his release from Guantánamo in February 2009:
Moazzam Begg: When you were in the Bagram Detention Facility after being held in the “Dark Prison,” you came across a female prisoner. Can you describe a little bit about who you think she is and what you saw of her?
Binyam Mohamed: In Bagram, I did come across a female who wore a shirt with the number of “650,” and I saw her several times, and I heard a lot of stories about her from the guards and the other prisoners over there.
Moazzam Begg: And these stories said what about her, in terms of her description and her background?
Binyam Mohamed: What we were told first … we were frightened by the guards not to communicate with her, because they feared that we would talk to her and we would know who she was. So they told us that she was a spy from Pakistan, working with the government, and the Americans brought her to Bagram.
Moazzam Begg: So you think they spread the rumour that she was a spy … that would have kept you away from her and apprehensive towards her?
Binyam Mohamed: Basically, nobody talked to her in the facility, and she was held in isolation, where … she was only brought out to the main facility just to use the toilet. But all I knew about her was that she was from Pakistan, and that she had studied, or she had lived in America. And the guards would talk a lot about her, and I did actually see her picture when I was here a few weeks ago, and I would say she’s the very person I saw in Bagram.
Moazzam Begg: And that’s the very picture I showed you of Aafia Siddiqui?
Binyam Mohamed: That’s the very picture I saw.
Moazzam Begg: There have been all sorts of rumours about what happened to her — and may Allah free her soon — but part of those rumours include her being terribly abused. Do you have any knowledge of what abuse she might have faced?
Binyam Mohamed: Apart from her being in isolation — and the fact that I saw, when she was walking up and down, I could tell that she was severely disturbed — I don’t think she was in her right mind — literally, I don’t think she was sane — and I didn’t feel anything at that time, because, as far as I was concerned, she was a hypocrite working with the other governments. But had we known that she was a sister, I don’t think we would have been silent. I think there would have been a lot of maybe even riots in Bagram.
In March 2010, at a rally organized by the Justice for Aafia Coalition, former Guantánamo prisoner Omar Deghayes stated that, as well as Binyam Mohamed, Hassan bin Attash (a former child prisoner who is still held in Guantánamo) and Dr. Ghairat Baheer (a former “ghost prisoner” held in various secret prisons in Afghanistan) also described seeing Aafia Siddiqui in Bagram. Omar said, “They told me how she cried and sobbed, how she screamed and cried and banged her head, in despair and sorrow.”
The Justice for Aafia Coalition has also been gathering other testimony about Dr. Siddiqui’s presence in Bagram from other sources, locating the following statement by Abu Yahya al-Libi, who escaped from Bagram in July 2005, which resonates with the recollections of Binyam Mohamed, Hassan bin Attash and Dr. Baheer:
There is a woman from Pakistan. She stayed two complete years in solitary confinement in Bagram prison among more than 500 men. She would go out to the bathroom, led by the Americans, placing his hand on one of her shoulders, and the other hand on her back, and her hands and feet chained together, and she is treated in exactly the same way as a man … even in her clothing, the orange suit that the brothers wear in Guantánamo and the mujahideen in Bagram. This woman stayed there until she lost her mind, until she became insane, hitting the door and screaming, all day and night, and those ones all they do is make it worse by calling her by her number 650, that’s the number she had in the Bagram prison… “What’s the problem?” And she didn’t find a person to talk to. She is in solitary confinement, in front of her is a solitary room belonging to a man, on her side is a solitary room belonging to a man, and next to her is a solitary room belonging to a man, She didn’t find a woman to talk to, she only sees men … so the woman lost her reasoning and her mind and she stayed in this condition for two complete years… probably no one knew anything about her.
In addition, two of Aafia Siddiqui’s three children have stated that they were also held in custody during the period that their mother’s whereabouts are unexplained, adding another chilling dimension to the story. Although it is feared that Suleman, who was just a baby in March 2003, was killed at the time of her capture, her eldest son Ahmed (who was seven at the time) and her daughter Mariam (who was five) eventually reappeared. Ahmed, who was seized with his mother in Ghazni in July 2008, and was released to his mother’s family in October 2009, issued the following statement about his capture and his lost years:
I do not remember the date but it seems a long time ago. I remember we were going to Islamabad in a car when we were stopped by different cars and high roof ones. My mother was screaming and I was screaming as they took me away. I looked around and saw my baby brother on the ground and there was blood. My mother was crying and screaming. Then they put something on my face. And I don’t remember anything.
When I woke up I was in a room. There were American soldiers in uniform and plain clothes people. They kept me in different places. If I cried or didn’t listen, they beat me and tied me and chained me. There were English speaking, Pashto and Urdu speaking. I had no courage to ask who they were. At times, for a long time, I was alone in a small room. Then I was taken to some children’s prison where there were lots of other children.
The American Consular, who came to me in Kabul jail, said, “Your name is Ahmed. You are American. Your mother’s name is Aafia Siddiqui and your younger brother is dead. After that they took me away from the kids’ prison and I met the Pakistani Consular, and I talked to my aunt (Fowzia Siddiqui).”
Mariam did not reappear until April this year, when unidentified men delivered her to her aunt’s house. Now 12 years old, she was identified as Aafia Siddiqui’s daughter (and Ahmed’s sister) through DNA tests. At a press conference, Senator Talha Mehmood, the Chairman of the Senate Committee for the Interior, reported that Mariam “was recovered from Bagram airbase in the custody of an American — in the Urdu language press, an American soldier — called ‘John.’ He also said that she had been kept for seven years in a ‘cold, dark room’ in Bagram airbase.” Although this story has not been independently verified, and it may be that Mariam was held in some other facility, no other explanation has been provided to explain her whereabouts for the previous seven years.
These are just some of the reasons to doubt the assertion made by US diplomats in Pakistan, in one of the cables released by Wikileaks, and also to doubt the conviction with which Declan Walsh followed up on the cable, writing in the Guardian, “Contrary to claims by supporters of Aafia Siddiqui, the controversial Pakistani neuroscientist was never imprisoned at the Bagram military prison in Afghanistan, the embassy cables suggest.”
Other reasons to doubt the assertion include previously reported shadiness on the part of diplomats, who initially told the journalist Yvonne Ridley (who has spent many years doggedly pursuing the truth about Dr. Siddiqui) that no women had been held in Bagram, although it was later revealed that they had lied. Shortly after the incident in Ghazni, Lt. Col. Rumi Nielson-Greene, a spokesperson for Combined Joint Task Force 101, which manages the Bagram base, “said that a woman had been held at Bagram in 2003, but that woman, identified only as ‘Shafila,’ was released.” This was a fascinating insight, because the timeframe involved — during 2003 — appears to confirm that the witnesses cited above, who saw a woman at Bagram in 2004, were not mistaking Aafia Siddiqui for this other poor woman, whose whereabouts are, of course, unknown.
Even more significant is the well-chronicled failure of senior Bush administration officials to keep State Department officials in the loop about almost anything of substance to do with the “War on Terror.”
In 2009, when I interviewed Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s former Chief of Staff, Wilkerson told me, in no uncertain terms, that the State Department had been excluded from correspondence relating to the conduct of the “War on Terror,” although the team gathered around Dick Cheney — a “War Council” consisting of just six men — had been monitoring the State Department’s responses to the results of Cheney’s activities. Wilkerson said:
I understood that there was a team, I understood it was highly placed and probably under the Vice President, I understood that it was membered in almost every aspect of the interagency group that dealt with national security, I understood they had a strategy, I understood they were ruthless in carrying out that strategy, and I understood that I was a day late and a dollar short, because they’d beaten me to the marketplace. But it took me a while to figure that out. I even figured out that they were reading my emails, but I wasn’t reading theirs.
Another reason for doubting the diplomats’ denials concerns the timing of Dr. Siddiqui’s capture, and its place within the bigger picture of the capture of supposed “high-value detainees” who were subjected to “extraordinary rendition” and torture in a variety of secret prisons, including, in many cases, a secret facility within Bagram. Whether accurately or not, it has been claimed that Dr, Siddiqui had remarried, before her capture, and that her second husband was Ali Abdul Aziz Ali (aka Ammar al-Baluchi), a nephew of the alleged 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Dr. Siddiqui was seized just four weeks after KSM, and four weeks before Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, and it is easy, therefore, to see that a confession extracted under torture from KSM — when he was being subjected to waterboarding on 183 separate occasions in a secret prison in Poland — could have led to Dr. Siddiqui’s capture, which, in turn, could have led to the capture — perhaps through information also extracted through the use of torture — of Ali Abdul Aziz Ali.
If this sequence is correct — and it certainly makes a lot of sense — then it is appropriate to conclude that Dr. Siddiqui was held as a “ghost prisoner” in a secret prison, and it does not take too much reflection to realize that, as a result, her mysterious reappearance in Afghanistan in July 2008, the implausible story of her attempts to murder US soldiers (even though no fingerprints were found on the gun), her rendition to the United States rather than facing justice in Afghanistan, the sham of a trial that focused only on the murder attempt, and not on the terrorist materials allegedly found on her at the time of her capture, and the disproportionately large sentence are all part of a cover-up, designed to dispose of a used-up “ghost prisoner,” who knew too much — and was, conceivably, too horribly abused — to be released.
Unlike KSM, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and 12 other “high-value detainees,” for example, Dr. Siddiqui could not be sealed up in Guantánamo (where these men were sent from secret prisons in September 2006), because the presence of a female prisoner would have caused an uproar. In addition, she could not, like prisoners from other countries, be repatriated without that also causing an uproar, unlike a number of Libyan men who were stealthily repatriated from secret prisons in 2006.
These men included Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who ran a training camp in Afghanistan that was closed down by the Taliban because he refused to work with Osama bin Laden, but after his capture in late 2001 he was sent by the CIA to Egypt, where he was tortured until he falsely confessed that Saddam Hussein had met with members of al-Qaeda to discuss the use of chemical and biological weapons. That false confession was used a part of the justification for the invasion of Iraq, in March 2003, but once al-Libi was used up — after several years in other secret prisons — he was returned to Libya, where, implausibly but conveniently for the US and LIbya, he died, reportedly by committing suicide, in May 2009.
For Aafia Siddiqui, the Federal Medical Center in Carswell, Texas, where she is now held, may not be quite as notorious as Abu Salim prison in Tripoli — where around 1,200 prisoners were killed in a massacre in 1996 — or Bagram, because of its dark fame in the “War on Terror,” but to those in the know, it is, as Yvonne Ridley explained, known as the “Hospital of Horrors,” where more than 100 young women “have died in the last 10 years under ‘questionable circumstances’ with families unable to obtain autopsy reports,” and where there have been numerous cases of sex abuse.
Please write to Aafia at Carswell, not only to let her know that she has not been forgotten, but also because the most effective way to ensure that abusers think twice about their abuse is when they know that the outside world is watching — and is watching in large numbers. The address for the prison is here, and if you’re interested, I urge you to take advantage of the Justice for Aafia Coalition’s pre-printed cards, available here, which can easily be distributed to friends and family.