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02 October 2023

Mystery shrouds Pakistani scientist in US trial


She has been dubbed Lady Al-Qaeda by US media, but the Pakistani family of Aafia Siddiqui, on trial in New York, insist she is a moderate Muslim more interested in flowers and animals than wielding weapons.

Their description of a loving mother, daughter and good neighbour fond of tending her rose garden clashes with US prosecutors' description of an Islamic extremist who grabbed a gun and opened fire on US soldiers and FBI agents.

Whether she deceived her family about her extremist views, radicalised during a long unexplained disappearance, or really is the woman they say she is, is a mystery that may, perhaps, be explained on the stand in New York.

On the opening day of the trial Tuesday, prosecutors described the US-educated neuroscientist as a would-be terrorist who in July 2008 grabbed an American soldier's rifle at an Afghan police station and opened fire.

The 37-year-old has repeatedly disrupted the proceedings, complaining that the court is unfair. On Tuesday she was ordered out of the court after her outbursts.

In the upmarket Gulshan-e-Iqbal neighbourhood of Pakistan's biggest city, Karachi, her frail 70-year-old mother Ismat Siddiqui thumbs through an old family photo album and defends the girl smiling from the pages.

"She loves people, animals and flowers. She wouldn't hurt anything alive. How can she try to kill US soldiers?" Ismat Siddiqui told AFP.

"She was a good Muslim and at the same time she was a good human. She would help people in distress and never thought of killing an insect. How can she be accused as a terrorist and a member of Al-Qaeda?"

Ismat sits on a spacious veranda overlooking the manicured lawn of the large family home where her daughter spent some of her childhood before attending the prestigious MIT university in Massachusetts.

Siddiqui's elder sister, Fowzia, a doctor, recalled her sibling's childhood love of animals and academic excellence.

"She was religious but not a religious fanatic. She was crazy about roses and she had planted different varieties of roses in our little garden" -- a garden where Pakistani police now guard the family.

"She had four pet dogs, one of them I remember was called Shaggy.... She was brilliant in all respects. She was an excellent student and a brave mother," said Fowzia.

A neighbour, 55-year-old trader Mohammad Hashim, described Siddiqui as "a nice girl, a decent and caring girl".

However, a different picture emerged in the New York courtroom.

According to US prosecutors, Siddiqui was arrested by Afghan police on July 17, 2008 in the provincial city of Ghazni with notes on her referring to a "mass casualty attack" and target lists including New York's most famous landmarks.

The next day, while being held at the local police station, she allegedly grabbed an M4 assault rifle belonging to one of several US servicemen and FBI agents who had come to interrogate her.

She opened fire, missed, and was shot by one of the US soldiers, prosecutors allege. Defence lawyers will argue that there is little direct physical evidence that she shot at the Americans.

How Siddiqui ended up in Afghanistan that day is one of many mysteries.

Siddiqui was living in Karachi with her family when she vanished along with her three children in March 2003. A year later, she featured on a 2004 US list of people suspected of Al-Qaeda links.

She is also said to have married a relative of 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, although her mother denies this.

Some human rights activists and lawyers have speculated that Siddiqui was in secret US custody all those years, a long incarceration that damaged her mental health and led to hallucinations of her dead or missing children.

The US military has denied this, saying the allegation is "unfounded" and she may have gone underground in the missing years. A judge ruled in July 2009 that Siddiqui was mentally fit to stand trial.

While two of Siddiqui's children are missing -- one presumed dead -- her 13-year-old son Mohammad Ahmed now lives with the family in Karachi.

"He has yet to fully recover from the mental trauma of languishing in an Afghan jail," Ismat Siddiqui said, glancing fondly at the shy boy who sits nearby holding a placard. It reads: "Release my Mom."


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