- By Saba ImtiazSaba Imtiaz is a freelance journalist based in Pakistan. She was a Carnegie fellow at the New America Foundation in 2014, and is the author of Karachi, You’re Killing Me! and the forthcoming No Team of Angels.
It was bound to create controversy and outrage in a country fixated with Dr. Aafia Siddiqui. The sentencing of the Pakistani neuroscientist — dubbed the ‘Grey Lady of Bagram,’ the ‘daughter of Pakistan’ and ‘Prisoner 650′ by her supporters — in a New York court on Thursday has riled many in Pakistan, including the government that had campaigned for her release.
But other than the typical and expected anti-U.S. comments made by Aafia Siddiqui’s supporters, anger was directed at the Pakistani government. On Thursday night, Siddiqui’s sister Fauzia addressed a press conference minutes after the ruling (86 years imprisonment on seven counts) and said it was a "slap on the face of our rulers and every leader of the Muslim world" and that she had been reassured by government officials that Aafia would be repatriated. She accused the Pakistani government of "selling Aafia out repeatedly."
It is an ironic state of affairs. The Pakistani government, which had reportedly paid $2 million for Siddiqui’s legal defense, made her into a folk hero of sorts and regularly communicated with her family, is now taking the heat. Politicians appeared instantly on television channels to denounce the government for not acting in time to ‘save the daughter of Pakistan.’ Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani told Pakistan’s upper house of parliament that the government was trying to initiate an extradition treaty for Aafia Siddiqui’s release. "We did not spare any effort," Gilani claimed, and said "Dr. Aafia is the daughter of the nation. We fought for her and we will fight politically to bring her back."
Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S. Husain Haqqani said in an e-mail interview, "We have made sincere efforts to help her legally and diplomatically and will continue to do so. We understand Fauzia Siddiqui’s grief but it is sheer fantasy to believe that Aafia’s imprisonment is because of the Pakistani government’s inaction or that the Pakistani government could somehow spring her from prison in the U.S. In over two years since her reported arrest in Ghazni, the government of Pakistan has sought but not received evidence from those issuing statements on her behalf that could disprove the U.S. government’s version of events."
Fauzia Siddiqui said in an interview with Dawn News that she had been fooled by Amb. Haqqani and alleged that he had told her he privately met with the judge presiding over the case.
Aafia’s comments before her sentencing were a mix of confusion and conspiracies. According to Al Jazeera English, "She disputed her lawyer’s claim that she is mentally unfit to stay on trial, then went on to talk about her dreams and the symbolism of her dreams, genetic testing, her belief that Israel is behind the attacks of September 11, 2001, and that Israel was plotting with her prison warden to attack the United States." She claimed she was not being mistreated and appealed to her supporters to not turn to violence. Fauzia repeated Aafia’s call for calm, but also said that she had been forced to make a statement saying she was not mistreated and invoked gory visions. "Have you forgotten the hearings when she would appear covered in blood, her face would be swollen and (her body) would bear marks of being hit by rifles?"
And so the sentencing was used — as most volatile incidents are — to stage public protests countrywide.
Members of civil society and the religious political party Jamaat-e-Islami and its student wing Islami Jamiat Talaba clashed with the police in Karachi and Islamabad. Their aim was to protest outside the U.S. consulate and embassy in the respective cities. On Thursday night, protestors in Peshawar burned tires and stomped on posters of former U.S. President George W. Bush.
Political parties rarely call for protests after suicide bombings, but the Jamaat-e-Islami called for countrywide protests shortly after Aafia’s sentencing. Breathless condemnations of the sentencing came in almost instantly from political parties. A high-level meeting was chaired by Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik on Friday evening to form a committee on Aafia’s repatriation.
While Pakistani leaders have often been accused of dragging their feet on the issues that matter — be it condemning terrorist acts, clamping down on militant activities or ensuring transparent flood relief efforts — Aafia Siddiqui’s sentencing has kick started everyone into action.
The millions displaced by the floods in Pakistan, thousands languishing in jail awaiting trial and the countless women who are victims of honor killings, mistreatment in jails and discrimination will not see anyone rallying for their cause. Not acting swiftly to help them — who should also be dubbed daughters of Pakistan and supported by politicians — is the real injustice. Instead, the focus continues to be on the woman with the explosive purse, an illustrious past, a dubious story and now, an 86-year sentence.
Saba Imtiaz works for The Express Tribune, an English-language newspaper in Pakistan.