Aafia Siddiqui, alleged Al Qaeda associate, gets 86-year sentence

Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neurosurgeon who the US says has ties to Al Qaeda members, was sentenced to 86 years in prison for attempted murder today.

Pakistanis protest on Sept. 23 in Islamabad, Pakistan, to condemn the sentencing of alleged Al Qaeda suspect Aafia Siddiqui.

Aafia Siddiqui, a US-educated Pakistani neuroscientist whose lawyers argued is mentally unstable, was sentenced to 86 years in prison in a New York district court for trying to shoot American soldiers in an Afghanistan police station two years ago.

The saga of Ms. Siddiqui, a former student at Brandeis University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has been closely followed in her home country, where she is widely viewed as innocent.

At the time of her conviction in February on two counts of attempted murder, thousands of protesters took to the streets of Islamabad. Hundreds of Pakistanis have been killed in US drone strikes in the lawless border areas near Afghanistan this year, and the public perception of the United States has turned sharply negative.

The reaction to her sentencing today was more muted, thought it came late in the day Pakistan time.

The events leading to her conviction took place in 2008, when she had been detained near the Afghanistan city of Ghazni. During an attempt to interrogate her by US soldiers, she grabbed an American rifle and opened fire. She hit no one, and was shot and wounded as she attempted to flee.

US authorities said she was found with bomb-making instructions and a list of prominent New York city sites, which they said appeared to be a target list.

But Siddiqui had been on US authorities' radars long before her detention. The FBI issued an alert saying it was seeking Siddiqui, then living in the US, for questioning because of ties to a man alleged to be an Al Qaeda agent planning attacks in the US. She disappeared around that time, and precisely what happened in the five years before her detention in Ghazni is unclear.

She has variously said that she was kidnapped and held secretly by the US during that time, that she'd been kidnapped and held by Pakistan, and that she was a secret agent for the Pakistani intelligence services. US court filings say she told FBI agents that she'd married Ammar al-Baluchi, a nephew of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the man who carried out most of the planning for the 9/11 attacks and who is in US custody in Guantánamo Bay.

She was originally declared to be mentally fit to go on trial, though that decision was overturned last year, with some prison psychiatrists arguing that she was faking the symptoms of mental illness.

Richard Berman, the sentencing judge, was unswayed by the defense's request for leniency on the basis of mental illness. Siddiqui herself remained calm in court, and called for peace after her sentencing.

''Don't get angry,'' she said, according to Pakistan's Dawn newspaper. ''Forgive Judge Berman."

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