Pakistanis angry over US court’s 86-year prison term for scientist who shot at authorities

By Ashraf Khan, AP
Friday, September 24, 2010

Pakistanis furious over woman’s US prison sentence

KARACHI, Pakistan — Pakistanis burned tires and chanted anti-U.S. slogans after a New York judge handed down an 86-year sentence to an American-trained Pakistani scientist convicted of trying to kill U.S. agents and military officers in Afghanistan.

The strange case of Aafia Siddiqui has long stirred passions in Pakistan, a key U.S. ally in the fight against Islamist militancy but also a place where anti-American sentiment is widespread.

Many Pakistanis believe the U.S. abducted Siddiqui and kept her in a secret prison for years as it pursued its war on terror. U.S. officials deny those claims, though they long listed Siddiqui as a suspect wanted for alleged links to al-Qaida.

After vanishing for five years, Siddiqui was caught in Afghanistan in 2008, where she is said to have shot at U.S. interrogators.

During a three-hour hearing in federal court in Manhattan on Thursday, Siddiqui tried to dispel rumors she was being tortured while in New York, and urged calm over her plight. “Tell the Muslims, please don’t get emotional,” she said, addressing reporters in the audience.

But in Pakistan, news of the harsh sentence immediately sparked anger and disbelief.

In the northwestern city of Peshawar, dozens of people took to the streets, burning tires and shouting “Down with America!” and slogans against Pakistan’s president and prime minister. Some hit a portrait of President Barack Obama with their shoes.

“This sentence is a slap in the face of our rulers, who have pledged and made promises to bring back Aafia,” Siddiqui’s sister Fauzia said at her home in the southern city of Karachi.

The Pakistani government, which helped bankroll Siddiqui’s defense, was “disappointed at the sentence and sad that our efforts to get her back to Pakistan did not succeed,” said Foreign Office spokesman Abdul Basit. “We are in touch with the U.S. administration to see what possible options are available. We are not giving up.”

Calling Siddiqui an “enigma,” U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman started the sentencing by outlining Siddiqui’s history, noting that she was educated in the United States at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brandeis University in the early 1990s.

Berman said she returned to her native Pakistan in 2003 and married a purported al-Qaida operative, a nephew to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the admitted mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Both men are held at Guantanamo Bay.

Her whereabouts between 2003 and 2008 are unclear, though Siddiqui told the court she was held in a secret prison in Afghanistan for many years. She turned up in Afghanistan in the summer of 2008 carrying notes referencing a “mass casualty attack” on New York City landmarks and some sodium cyanide.

At her trial earlier this year, jurors heard eyewitnesses describe how, after she was detained by Afghan police, Siddiqui grabbed a rifle and tried to shoot U.S. authorities who had gone to interrogate her. They said she yelled, “Death to Americans!” before she was wounded in return fire and subdued.

Siddiqui testified in her own defense at the trial, saying charges that she purposely shot at soldiers were “ridiculous.”

Just before she was sentenced, Siddiqui said she was at peace. Afterward, she insisted that her lawyers not appeal.

“It’s useless, pointless,” she said. “I appeal to God.”

Associated Press writers Tom Hays and Larry Neumeister in New York contributed to this report.

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