Aafia Siddiqui, whose face once stared down from posters claiming that she was "the most wanted woman in the world," appeared before a United States court in Brooklyn, New York, last week on charges of attempting to murder American servicemen in an Afghanistan shooting incident. But her first court appearance has raised disturbing questions about her treatment and the conduct of the war on terror, with lawyers claiming the Pakistani neuroscientist was secretly arrested five years ago, tortured by Afghan and US officials, and framed for crimes she did not commit.
The charges are the latest wrinkle in a case that has pitted the governments of the US, Afghanistan, and Pakistan against Ms. Siddiqui's family and lawyers as well as international human rights groups.
Siddiqui, 36, was arrested in the central town of Ghazni on July 17 by Afghan police who said they believed she had been planning a suicide attack.
She has been described by US officials as a "treasure trove" of information on Al-Qaeda.
Her arrest was the first time in five years she had been seen publicly and her family and lawyers allege she had been held captive since disappearing in Pakistan in 2003 – possibly in a secret US or allied prison.
The US military based at Bagram, about 60 kilometres (35 miles) north of Kabul, said Siddiqui had only been to the base for military treatment for gunshot wounds after her arrest, and not before that.
"She has never been held in US military custody," spokeswoman Lieutenant Colonel Rumi Nielson-Green told AFP.
But outside observers have begun to doubt the credibility of the US military's claims. Sam Zarifi, Asia-Pacific director for Amnesty International, called the government's account "extraordinary" in an interview with National Public Radio (NPR).
"It seems extraordinary to imagine that four U.S. agents who'd gone to pick her up — two military, two FBI — along with at least two Afghan translators, were somehow surprised by this woman, who overpowered them, grabbed a gun, flipped the safety, fired off a couple of shots, and then could only be subdued by shots to the torso," said [Zarifi].
"If the story suggested by the U.S. government is accurate, it paints a very unflattering picture of the competence of forces who are literally on the frontlines of the 'war on terror,'" he said. "If the U.S. story is not true, then we're looking at a serious breach of U.S. and international law when a prisoner in custody is shot."
After her arrest in Ghazni, Afghan police searched her bag and claimed that it was full of incriminating material, according to Fox News. Reports indicate her bag contained a map of the town of Ghazni and a list of targets in the New York area, including Times Square, the Statue of Liberty, mass transit networks, and a US military research facility on Plum Island, off the coast of Connecticut.
While some reports characterized the landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, and the subway system as "targets," one federal official briefed on the case said authorities believed the list contained no credible terrorist threat.
Plum Island's inclusion also didn't cause substantial change to security at the facility, which studies foreign animal diseases, or alter the security level for Long Island, which remains at "elevated" like most of the country, [Suffolk Police Deputy Chief Mark White] said....
A law enforcement official who didn't want to be named said federal prosecutors in Manhattan were concerned that the case against Siddiqui was being oversold as a coup against terrorism.
"It's not clear it was even a target list," the official said.
Siddiqui's legal team paints a very different picture of what has happened to their client. They say she has been set up by the government, with one of her lawyers, Elizabeth Fink, telling the Associated Press, "Of course they found all this stuff on her. It was planted on her.... She is the ultimate victim of the American dark side."
In court on Wednesday, Siddiqui's legal team pressed the judge to allow her to receive immediate medical care for her gunshot wounds, saying that she had been in the US for a week, but had not seen a physician, according to Newsday.
At a hearing Monday, a Manhattan federal magistrate-judge ordered Siddiqui, wounded in the July 18 shooting incident, to get a physical examination within 24 hours. Her next court date was postponed until September. She appeared in court in a wheelchair.
NPR reports that Siddiqui's lawyers say she was arrested in 2003, shortly after she disappeared in Pakistan with her three children, and was held and tortured in a secret US prison in Afghanistan. Siddiqui has also been identified by her legal team as the mysterious "prisoner 650" at Bagram Air base, a female prisoner in solitary confinement that other prisoners claim to have heard screaming.
Siddiqui's lawyer, Elaine Whitfield Sharp, told NPR that she suspects her client was set up. She suspects Siddiqui was being held captive, was dropped off at the compound and then was immediately picked up again with "conveniently incriminating evidence."
Whitfield Sharp says she has proof that Siddiqui was actually being held at Bagram Air Base, in a secret prison in Afghanistan, for the past five years. FBI, Justice Department and CIA officials say unequivocally that they haven't been holding Siddiqui and don't know where she has been the past five years.