Torture Should Be Accounted For

Torture is among the most heinous crimes known to humankind. It should never be excused, it should never go unpunished. It is not about who the tortured are, or what the tortured know. It is not about what they have done, what they believe, or whether they would do the same. It is about who we are, and how human beings should be treated. It is about our humanity, that is all.

Monday, September 1, 2008

An Open Letter to the ACLU

To whom it may hopefully concern,

The case of the supposed al Qaeda "Mata Hari", Aafia Siddiqui, is a case of significant human and civil rights implications, and has resonated as a major issue in her home country, Pakistan, as well as elsewhere. In the United States, where there is a genuine ability to affect the situation, civil and human rights groups have been strangely silent.

There is much about the whole case that is controversial. We don't know about the older allegations by the F.B.I., which were made quite publicly at times in 2003 and 2004, but were never expressed on the F.B.I. web site as anything more than that the F.B.I. wanted to question her, and had no solid links of her to terrorism. Some of them sound ludicrous, in that they require people to be at two places at one time, and require a whole second life, lived outside of any notice by her friends, thesis advisor, or anyone else.

We also don't know about the allegations of her family and of Asian human rights groups, that she was detained at Bagram for 5 years and tortured. She was listed by Amnesty International as missing and probably detained for quite a while, but we don't know who is being detained in that part of the world, and the Pakistani government lately went through major upheavals in no small part because a Supreme Court judge there ordered the government to produce the disappeared prisoners in court and charge or release them.

Much of these two sets of competing allegations, and how they are sorted out, if they ever are, will depend on a fair venue and a proper investigation. This is something everyone hopes for who has worked hard to hold the United States government accountable for prisoners, both those we know about in Guantanamo, and those whose only mark on our consciousness is that their relatives say they disappeared one day, like many in prisons far fuller than Guantanamo, abroad.

But at the current moment, we are at a far more rudimentary and basic stage with the case of Aafia Siddiqui. We must concentrate on the present, and on what is more easily verified. And the present doesn't look very good.

On June 17th, according to both the F.B.I. and two groups of police in Afghanistan, the Ghazni police arrested her and her child, Ahmed, 11, in Ghazni. They claimed she had been wandering around the governors palace and used vocabulary indicating they thought she was planning a suicide attack on the building.

They transferred her and her son to the Afghan National Police that day, after giving a "press conference" which is available in part on YouTube, and shows the police asking Ms. Siddiqui and her son questions and Ms. Siddiqui telling her son not to answer them, followed by a long statement by the police spokesman.

The next day, we know for sure, Ms. Siddiqui was shot by an American warrant officer twice in the torso, once in the chest and once in the lower abdomen, in the presence of interpreters, Afghan police, and F.B.I. interrogators. There are two versions as to how this happened, the version on the affidavit the F.B.I. filed in New York District Court says she grabbed the warrant officer's M-4 assault rifle and attempted to shoot it at them, the version from the Afghan police is that the Americans were disarming the Afghan police when she approached them to complain about police abuse, and the warrant officer panicked thinking she was going to blow herself up and shot her twice. But we know she got shot.

She was transported to Bagram for medical treatment, and remained there in the hospital for two weeks. During the time she was there, the F.B.I. and the U.S. military both denied publicly that she was in custody, or that they knew where she was. There is no indication she was registered with the Red Cross (she may have been, there is no indication). She was then "arrested" on charges of attempting to kill a (U.S.) federal agent, put on a plane to New York, and put in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn New York. Her son remained in custody in Afghanistan. The Afghan police say they had no means to hold him, so they transfered him to the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS). At some point he was transfered to the Afghan Foreign Ministry.

At her arraignment, she was in a wheelchair, and her lawyers complained about lack of access to a doctor, that they had requested medical attention 6 days previously and it had not been provided. They also complained that she was subject to strip search before and after meetings with counsel. The judge made a few relevant comments, for instance, marveling over the speed of the "extradition", that he could not get an extradition from the Bronx to Manhattan that fast. He ordered a doctor's visit, over the objections of the prosecutor, who claimed that she was to high a security risk. Given that she has been talking to counsel through a food slot in lieu of submitting to strip searches, she is in solitary confinement.

The Pakistani consulate, who was allowed to visit her in Brooklyn, has also complained about her treatment, notably they asked for a Koran and proper food and an end to the strip searches.

Her bail hearing was postponed to September 3rd until she is in better medical health. There has been a new complaint about lack of access to proper medical care, and a complaint that the strip searches have been reinstated, along with having her climb stairs to meet with counsel, which her lawyers say is painful due to her injuries. The Pakistani ambassador, Hussain Haqqani, has complained again about her treatment. The Pakistan Senate has sent a delegation to try to make sure she gets a fair trial.

Which brings us to her bail hearing on Wednesday, September 3rd. It is a sad tribute to the perception of American rule of law and American justice that very few people abroad believe that Aafia Siddiqui will get anything resembling a fair trial. There are already many indications that lead one to believe otherwise:
  • The circumstances of her arrest. She was in Afghan custody, then she was in American military custody, then F.B.I. custody, then extradited. There were no extradition hearings in front of any magistrate, her consulate (the Pakistani government in general) was not informed of either her arrest or extradition. If she was in U.S. military custody and that custody was legal, what was her status? How can the F.B.I. make arrests on foreign soil? When a law enforcement officer (in this case U.S. military) fires on a prisoner in custody, shouldn't there be an investigation? Why were there so many conflicting stories about the circumstances of her original arrest by Ghazni police?
  • Her treatment before August 4th. She was in U.S. military and/or F.B.I. custody in a foreign country, her detention, even if it was for hospital care, should have been reported to the Red Cross at minimum. Why did these groups deny her custody or knowledge of her whereabouts, even to Pakistani human rights organizations, during this time? Why was her government not notified of her arrest and hospitalization?
  • Her treatment after August 4th. She is being held in a U.S. federal detention center. Allegations from ambassadors of strip searches in U.S. detention, not as a matter of safety but as an obvious harrassment and to interrupt meetings with counsel? Is this not an American human and civil rights issue? Is it so par for the course in American justice that American civil rights organizations have no interest? Allegations of denial of medical treatment? Both strip searches and denial of medical treatment, combined with solitary confinement (if prolonged), butt right up against the U.N. Convention Against Torture. Is the interest in this issue suspended for a person against whom there are allegations?
  • The detention of her son. Detaining her son, as pointed out by Human Rights Watch, is a violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and of Afghan law, because of the child's age. The detention continued, and included interrogation and DNA testing, for several weeks. Only when a sharp protest was lodged by HRW did the matter move, and the Afghan Foreign Ministry now says the child will be remanded to relatives. The child is a U.S. citizen by birth. There is no interest in the civil and human rights of children forced on foreign police forces by U.S. agents intent on prosecuting their mothers?
In the coming weeks, there will undoubtedly be more issues. Witnesses to the arrest and shooting are not all in the United States, for instance, and if the F.B.I. seeks charges on its allegations of terrorism and al Qaeda affiliation, there will be tremendously important issues related to evidence in a U.S. court room derived from torture -- the F.B.I. decided she was a terrorist after Khalid Sheikh Mohammad mentioned her name during the so-called enhanced interrogation that the rest of the world calls torture. Nothing derived from that should be admissible in a U.S. court of law, or anywhere else for that matter, and this requires scrutiny.

The ACLU is not an organization that traditionally shies away from controversy. They (in older form) marched during Sacco and Vanzetti, they defended George Lincoln Rockwell, they have put up with twenty years of abuse since George H.W. Bush's famous "card-carrying member of the ACLU" comment in the 1988 debates. And this case is not without the possibility of negative public opinion. This woman has been characterized as an al Qaeda mastermind, a sorceress who has conjured up everything from blood diamonds to biological and nuclear weapons. She is being tried down the street from Ground Zero.

But before anyone debates whether or not she is a "Female Osama Bin Laden", the "Grey Lady of Bagram, prisoner 650", or anything else, can we not have some attention from the civil and human rights organizations in the United States as to the state of her current detention, and the detention of her young children? Is it no longer the purview of civil rights lawyers in this country to worry about illegal extraditions, shootings in police custody, fair trials for publicly denigrated figures, or degrading treatment and denial of proper medical care? Look what happened when Human Rights Watch opened their mouths about her child. The Afghan government jumped. They had ignored Asian civil rights organizations like AHRC and HRCP for weeks, but they jumped into action when an American group spoke up.

Aafia Siddiqui will not get fair treatment without the voices of Americans: Civil Rights groups, citizens, American media, and someday members of Congress. This is a plea for those voices. It doesn't matter who she is or what she is. The ACLU taught us that. Didn't they?

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