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'Lady Al Qaeda': Pakistan reacts to Aafia Siddiqui conviction in US court

A New York court's conviction of Pakistani neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui for the attempted murder of US soldiers in Afghanistan has stirred anti-American anger in Pakistan.

Women supporters of Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami take part in a rally in Karachi, Thursday, to protest the conviction of Aafia Siddiqui.

Athar Hussain / Reuters

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By Huma Yusuf, Correspondent / February 4, 2010

Karachi, Pakistan

Thousands of political and social activists and students across Pakistan on Thursday protested the conviction of Aafia Siddiqui by a Manhattan jury for the attempted murder of US soldiers in Afghanistan.

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Siddiqui, a US-educated neuroscientist and Pakistani citizen was found guilty Wednesday. For many Pakistanis, the verdict is another example of the US government’s high-handedness and is expected to fuel anti-American sentiment in a country where Washington's foreign policy is already viewed with suspicion.

“The public’s reaction [to the conviction] can be read as a reaction to drone attacks, travel restrictions, and other discriminatory policies [against Pakistanis],” says Riffat Hussain, a political and defense analyst at Islamabad’s Quaid-e-Azam University.

Pakistani opposition parties and human rights activists had already been protesting an escalation of strikes against targets in Pakistan by US drones – in January, 123 civilians were reportedly killed in 12 attacks. “Aafia’s case has become a rallying point for anti-US sentiments,” says Dr. Hussain.

Siddiqui was missing for five years before being apprehended by Afghan police in 2008. During the trial, jurors heard that she had been caught carrying bomb-making instructions and a list of New York City landmarks.

FBI agents and US soldiers testified that during her interrogation at an Afghan police station, she grabbed an assault rifle that one of her interrogators had set down, thinking that Siddiqi was restrained, and shot at him. She was wounded when he returned fire and brought to the US for trial.

Siddiqi said that she was shot when she peered around a curtain in a bid to find a way out of the room where she was being held, and had not shot at anyone.

Pakistani public's view

Many Pakistanis believe that Siddiqi was picked up in the southern port city of Karachi in 2003 and detained at Bagram Airbase, a US facility in Afghanistan, where she was allegedly tortured.

“The Americans should be warned that their tactics and fake convictions will not intimidate us,” says Aaliya Shamim, a spokesperson of the women’s wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami, a religious political party.

Shamim on Thursday organized a protest that drew hundreds of women who called for Siddiqui’s release and decried US involvement in Pakistani affairs. “We can no longer sit quietly; every mother and sister will fight for justice against America,” she said.

Protests against Siddiqui’s alleged ill-treatment while in detention have been ongoing during her trial. Those who believe the trial has been politicized from the start saw Thursday’s public reaction as inevitable.

“Siddiqui’s family has been saying that this verdict was expected, implying that the US cannot be fair,” says Sana Saleem, a Karachi-based political blogger. “Aafia herself has been playing the political and religious card during her trial.”

On being convicted, Siddiqui claimed the verdict was prompted by Israel.

Public face of 'missing persons'

But there is also a local dimension to the widespread protests. In recent years, human rights groups have accused Pakistani intelligence agencies of illegally detaining terror suspects. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, 242 people remained missing in 2009. Siddiqui had become the public face of Pakistan’s "missing persons" after she vanished from Karachi with her three children.

“We are protesting the verdict, and we are protesting against our government,” says Ali Abbas Zaidi, the chair of the Pakistan Youth Alliance, an activist group that participated in a civil society protest against the verdict in Islamabad’s Blue Area. He argues that Siddiqui’s case must be seen in a “broader perspective.”

“How can we criticize the US when our own government has been complicit in illegally detaining innocents?” asks Zaidi. According to Defence of Human Rights, an independent organization advocating for the release of all missing persons, more than 100 Pakistani women remain in illegal detention.

Siddiqui’s conviction is expected to put pressure on President Asif Ali Zardari’s government, which is already perceived locally as an American proxy. “The government needs to handle this issue with circumspection,” says Dr. Hussain, who suggested that Pakistan appeal the verdict. The Pakistani embassy in Washington has already expressed "dismay" at Siddiqui's conviction.

“It’ll be a balancing act for the government,” says blogger Saleem. “We have to respect judicial systems no matter what, even if they go against our expectations.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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