The details of a bizarre incident at an Afghan National Police facility in Ghazni, eastern Afghanistan, on July 18, 2008, are still in dispute. Even so, the woman at the center of the story will probably spend the rest of her life in jail.
Without any evidence being produced that she had fired a shot from a gun she reportedly grabbed while being held under arrest, Dr Aafia Siddiqui, an MIT-educated Pakistani neuroscientist, was convicted of attempted murder in February. On Thursday, District Court Judge Richard Berman sentenced the 38-year-old to 86 years in prison. In response, protesters took to the streets in Pakistan.
The jury found that Siddiqui acted without premeditation. But in a four-hour sentencing hearing, Judge Richard Berman repeatedly termed her acts premeditated. Her defense lawyers argued for a minimum sentence of 12 years, saying that Siddiqui is severely mentally ill.
Needless to say, the case now goes to appeal.
Defense attorney Charles Swift said that government authorities never made available the U.S. military reports on the incident. He said the report, which was declassified by the government after it was published this year on the WikiLeaks website, does not mention Siddiqui as having fired the gun. It said only that she pointed a weapon. He said he believes there was a further in-depth investigation of the incident by the military that has also been withheld from the defense.
“I think there’s real concern over the government’s obligation to turn over exculpatory evidence,” he told reporters. “And I don’t blame the prosecution in this case. What I’ve found in national security cases like this is they have as big a battle trying to get evidence as anyone does. But the United States, to do justice, has to do it credibly and has to produce all the documents. And that’s one of three or four huge ongoing appellate issues.”
If Charles Swift sounds like a familiar name it’s because he has the rare distinction of having stood up and successfully defended his country while its Constitution faced attack from the Bush administration. In Hamdan vs Rumsfeld, Swift won a major victory for the rule of law.
The case of Dr Siddiqui exposes a moral fallacy that has haunted America throughout the war on terrorism. It is this: that injustice is something that can only be done to the innocent.
We have abandoned what used to be the universally recognized foundation of a just legal system: that it treats the guilty and the innocent with fairness and impartiality.
(For fascinating background on the Siddiqui case, read Declan Walsh’s November 2009 report in The Guardian.)