US: `Lady Qaeda` sentenced to 86 years

A Pak scientist has been sentenced for attempted murder of US officers in Afghanistan.

New York: A New York court sentenced a Pakistani scientist to 86 years in prison for attempted murder of US officers in Afghanistan, in a high-profile case sparking outrage in Pakistan.

Aafia Siddiqui, 38, who had been dubbed "Lady Qaeda" by the US tabloids, was found guilty in February of trying to kill American servicemen in Afghanistan.

"It is my judgment that Dr Siddiqui is sentenced to a period of incarceration of 86 years," Judge Richard Berman said, imposing a heavy sentence even though Siddiqui, who was once suspected of links to al Qaeda, was never charged with terrorism.

The tough jail term sparked immediate outrage in Siddiqui`s hometown of Karachi and in Lahore, where hundreds of activists demonstrated, chanting anti-US slogans.

Her sister Fowzia Siddiqui told reporters in Karachi that all of Pakistan would join her movement to win Aafia`s release.

But in the New York courtroom, the petite Siddiqui repeatedly pleaded with Muslims to stay calm. "Forgive everybody in my case, please.... And also forgive Judge Berman," she said.

Siddiqui, a neuroscientist who trained at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brandeis University, said there was no point appealing. But her legal team promised to go ahead anyway.

"The important part is that an appeal goes forward and that those errors be addressed, because there were a lot of errors in this case," attorney Charles Swift told journalists.

Siddiqui, a mother of three, was found guilty of grabbing a rifle at an Afghan police station in the town of Ghazni where she was being interrogated in July 2008 and trying to gun down a group of US servicemen and FBI agents.

Prosecutors said she picked up the US soldier`s rifle and opened fire, shouting "death to America!"

She did not hit anyone and was herself shot in the stomach before being subdued.

Defence lawyers argued there was no physical evidence, such as finger prints or gunpowder traces, to show Siddiqui even grabbed the rifle.

They also disputed the government`s portrayal of Siddiqui as an al Qaeda-linked would-be terrorist.

While she was not charged with terrorism, Siddiqui was alleged to have been carrying dangerous chemicals in Karachi and documents referring to New York landmarks, like the Empire State Building, as targets.

The terrorism aspect of the case was cited by Berman as cause for enhancing the usual punishment for attempted murder into what could effectively amount to a life sentence for Siddiqui.

"The offences committed by Dr Siddiqui are very serious in nature," he said. "A sentence of significant incarceration is called for."

Siddiqui, her face wrapped in an ivory-white shawl, denied shooting at US officers and called in rambling commentaries for world peace.

She also referred repeatedly to claims that prior to the July 2008 incident she had spent the past five years in secret prisons, including at the Bagram US military base near Kabul, where she was tortured and "brainwashed”.

At one point she paused, apparently to push back in a prosthetic tooth, saying she lost most of her teeth in Bagram. "I got beaten many times," she said. "Sometimes they fall off when I`m talking."

A petite woman from a distinguished Pakistani family who excelled in her US studies, Siddiqui featured on a 2004 US list of people suspected of al Qaeda links. She allegedly married a Qaeda member now being held in Guantanamo Bay.

But her case also attracted the attention of human rights groups, which supported her claim to have been abducted in 2003 and placed in a secret network of US prisons.

Defence lawyers tried to prove Siddiqui, who reported disturbing hallucinations involving her missing children, was insane. However, medical opinions were mixed and Berman ruled her fit to stand trial.

While two of Siddiqui`s children are missing -- one presumed dead -- one son Mohammad Ahmed, a teenager, now lives with her relatives in Karachi.

Bureau Report