Aafia’s trauma

Published February 4, 2023

FMC CARSWELL is a federal medical centre in Fort Worth, Texas. This conjures up the kindly atmosphere of a hospital where a gentle orderly takes the patient’s temperature. Unfortunately, it is a prison. I have been to many American prisons in the last 40 years, and they are all ghastly. Even the women’s institutions tend to be overrun by gangs, with sexual violence the norm.

But some are worse than others. FMC Carswell is a high-security prison, and Aafia Siddiqui is slated to spend the rest of her life there — under US law, she will be well over 100 years old before she is eligible for release. Life expectancy in US prisons hovers around 60.

FMC Carswell is not just a prison; it is a mile and a half onto a huge military base. On Jan 19, I had a legal visit with Aafia. It came after a week in Guantánamo Bay, so I was prepared for the fabulous inefficiency of the US military and I was not particularly surprised when it took them almost three hours to let me in. I was irked, though, as it cut the time I had with Aafia to 80 minutes.

The tragedy of her story is well known. There is great doubt when it comes to the allegations against her — nobody says she hurt anyone, and much of the evidence was manifestly extorted out of her and other prisoners who had also been tortured. The notion that she was a threat to the serried ranks of armed American personnel is risible. However, there is little doubt about violence that has been done to her: the US admits that she was shot when she was already in custody. She has been repeatedly beaten, and she lost all her top front teeth when she was kicked in the face in one such incident. She is unique insofar as she seems to have been the only woman in the CIA Rendition-to-Torture programme. In the end she was rendered from Bagram prison in Afghanistan to the US and sentenced to 86 years under lock and key. She faces daily abuse in the US secret prison system, which she is meant to endure until about the year 2094.

She faces daily abuse in the US secret prison system.

From time to time, there have been rumours that she had died. No doubt there are many officials in both the US and Pakistan who secretly wish this was true. This is at least one piece of ‘fake news’ I can put to rest. Physically, dental work aside, she struck me as in reasonable shape for a 50-year old who has been through so much. But we can be fairly confident that she is not going to die anytime soon by natural causes.

On the other hand, the mistreatment visited on her over many years was specifically designed to break her spirit. It is a stain on my country that we used sexual abuse, beatings, sleep deprivation and other torture. Psychologically, Aafia is not doing well. None of the 87 male prisoners I have seen in Guantánamo have been traumatised to the same extent. She is now in an institution that ought to be helping to repair this damage. To the contrary, it exacerbates her nightmare.

In the end, this is a challenge for the Pakistan government. I am, of course, happy to be of assistance, and I ask nothing in return. I hope to visit Islamabad soon — to welcome some of my Pakistani Guantánamo clients home — and I hope to use this opportunity to meet with the responsible officials. Aafia’s problem is that she is one totally powerless woman in prison run by Americans who — at best — care nothing for her.

To understand the Pakistan government’s duty, one only has to read the inside of Aafia’s passport: the “Ministry of Interior, Government of Pakistan, requires and req­uests in the name of the President, Islamic Republic of Pakistan, all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.”

Aafia is being provided with little ‘assistance’ and no ‘protection’. This has to change. Meanwhile, she cannot ‘pass freely’ to the toilet, let alone back to her home and family in Karachi. It is not rocket science to figure out the solution, and it represents a win-win proposition for both countries: President Biden would look strong if, for example, he swapped her for Dr Shakil Afridi. Even though I oppose assassination under all circumstances, we have to understand those who make decisions: The US media would portray this as winning liberty for the man who allegedly helped to assassinate Osama bin Laden. Meanwhile, Pakistan would have brought home a woman whose plight has come to represent the very worst excesses of the ‘War on Terror’.

I think I could persuade the Americans to get this done. Who, then, in Pakistan is standing in the way of such a solution and why? Let’s get past that and get it done.

The writer is the director of the UK human rights NGO 3DC.

Published in Dawn, February 4th, 2023

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