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Aafia Siddiqui appears in US court, denied bail

August 07, 2008

NEW YORK, Aug 6: Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist, was ordered to be held without bail by a US federal court judge in Manhattan on Tuesday on charges that she tried to kill an American soldier and an FBI agent while in US custody in Kabul.

Ms Siddiqui, wearing a maroon headscarf, gingerly walked into the courtroom with the help of her lawyers. Looking frail and in pain recovering from a gunshot wound she received in what the prosecution lawyers described as an encounter in Afghanistan after police claimed they discovered suspicious documents about explosives and landmarks from her handbag.

Ms Siddiqui’s court-appointed pro-bono lawyer, Elizabeth M. Fink, told Judge Ronald Ellis that the allegation that her client, who weighed 90 pounds, had picked up the rifle and attacked the Americans, was “patently absurd”.

“Is that what happened, Judge?”, Ms Fink asked sounding bewildered.

She demanded Ms Siddiqui’s immediate release.

Ms Siddiqui was held without bail on one count each of attempted murder and assault stemming from last month’s incident. She had been arrested in Afghanistan and flown to New York to be formally charged, according to the Justice Department.

Judge Ellis set an August 11 hearing to determine whether Ms Siddiqui should be released on bail. He also said he would ask prison officials to make sure she was receiving proper medical care after a defence attorney told the magistrate that she had been shot. “She has a wound, and it’s oozing.”

The judge allowed her to remain seated.

Another hearing was set for August 19 to determine whether Ms Siddiqui should be tried.

The judge expressed surprise at the quick extradition of Ms Siddiqui from Afghanistan to New York noting that in such a short period one could not extradite a person from Bronx (a New York Borough) to Manhattan.

Ms Siddiqui was taken into custody on July 17 after she was found loitering outside an Afghan police station with suspicious items in her handbag, including documents describing the creation of explosives, a criminal complaint filed by US district attorney in New York said.

US officials insisted that they had no knowledge of her whereabouts until she was arrested by Afghan police for acting suspiciously outside the governor’s compound in the central Afghan province of Ghazni on July 17. They said that Ms Siddiqui was with a teenage boy at the time.

Two FBI agents escorted by US soldiers interrogated her the following day. The soldiers were unaware that she was being held behind a curtain and a warrant officer put his M4 rifle on the ground, the complaint filed by US attorney’s office said.

Ms Siddiqui allegedly grabbed the rifle and fired two shots at a US army captain but an interpreter pushed the gun away as she fired. As the soldiers returned fire, she was hit at least once.

“The warrant officer saw and heard Siddiqui fire at least two shots as Interpreter 1 tried to wrestle the gun from her. No one was hit,” the criminal complaint says. “The warrant officer heard Siddiqui exclaim, ‘Allah akbar!’

Another interpreter heard Siddiqui yell in English, ‘Get the f*** out of here!’ as she fired the rifle.”

Ms Siddiqui is also alleged to have possessed descriptions of landmarks in the United States, documents about US military assets and excerpts from The Anarchist Arsenal.

American intelligence agencies have said that she had links to at least two of the 14 men suspected of being high-level members of Al Qaeda who were moved to Guantánamo Bay in September 2006.

The charges against her, however, do not appear to be related to those allegations, but to what prosecutors say was her assault on the Americans who were about to question her.

Ms Fink said after the hearing that her client was innocent and would fight the charges.

The hearing cleared up none of the mysteries that have surrounded Ms Siddiqui’s case since she disappeared with her three children while visiting her parents’ home in Karachi in 2003. Her family and human rights groups have said they believe that she was being held secretly; a family lawyer, Elaine Whitfield Sharp, said after the hearing that it was “in US detention”.

US authorities deny that assertion and say they have no knowledge of where she was for the past five years, until she was taken into custody last month.

Sam Zarifi, the Asia-Pacific director for Amnesty International, on Tuesday challenged the American government’s version of the events that led to Ms Siddiqui’s detention, New York Times reported on Wednesday.