In Pakistan, 'Lady Al-Qaida' Is A Cause Celebre

Pakistani columnist Fasi Zaka talks to Steve Inskeep about how the case of Aafia Siddiqui is being viewed in Pakistan. Siddiqui was known as the most wanted women in the world. She was convicted in a federal court in New York for attempted murder. To people in her native Pakistan, "Lady al-Qaida" is a victim.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

So, let's try to keep the facts straight here, since there are such differing versions. She's well educated, she had lived in the U.S. The American version is she was mysteriously missing for five years, suspected of terrorist activities and then suddenly turned up in Afghanistan and tried to kill people. The other version from her supporters is that she was in custody those five years, tortured and raped before being accused of a crime she didn't commit.

Let's get a Pakistani perspective on this from Fasi Zaka. He's a columnist for the Friday Times, which is an independent news weekly in Pakistan. Welcome back to the program.

Mr. FASI ZAKA (Columnist, Friday Times): Thank you very much for having me.

INSKEEP: What was Aafia Siddiqui's life like before the events of the last several years?

Mr. ZAKA: Well, a lot of it's still shrouded in mystery. She was in the U.S. She came back. Then at one point she suddenly disappeared. But mostly it's perceived that she's been in jail, held by the U.S. and Afghanistan, thought likely to be held in very poor conditions. But the main thing that seems to have very resonate with most Pakistanis is that her three children are missing.

And the accusation is that even though while she's been held for alleged crimes, it seems that the children have paid for it as well.

INSKEEP: Now, it's interesting that you mention the perception in Pakistan, because when this case has been covered in the United States it has mostly been described as a straightforward case of terrorism. A little strange, perhaps, but she was caught in Afghanistan doing something and she, according to the trial anyway, picked up this weapon and tried to fire.

It sounds like when the Pakistani media described this very same woman, this very same case, the assumptions are all very different.

Mr. ZAKA: Yes, because the U.S. media describes her as a highly educated woman who had privileged stay in the U.S., while here in Pakistan, the description tends to be more of somebody who's far more frail, and as was evident here in her trial, whose mental status was suspect.

And in addition, one of the main gripes in the Pakistani media seems to be is that she's been convicted for something that happened under circumstances that are not entirely clear, in Afghanistan. But the main crux of the allegations that stem, you know, five years earlier being a member of al-Qaida, running money for them with blood diamonds and a number of other things, that has not made its way to the criminal justice system.

INSKEEP: And if she was a terrorist, people are saying, why wasn't she ever really tried for charges of links to al-Qaida and so forth?

Mr. ZAKA: Absolutely. The primary charges that got her on the radar are the ones that have not been tried. And this an issue which resonates mostly with the religious right, but it also has a lot of average Pakistanis - if you look at Facebook these days, there are a lot of Pakistanis who have put up her picture in their profiles, and that's just to sort of highlight the case.

It seen as the U.S. system railroading someone who may be innocent in most people's eyes.

INSKEEP: I feel the need to keep repeating some of the basic facts here, what little is known: she was missing for five years - one question is where she was - the U.S. says we don't really know; Pakistanis and her supporters claim that she was in some kind of custody; first with Pakistan, second maybe with the United States.

Have Pakistani journalists been able to uncover any evidence suggesting that she really was snatched by the authorities at some point?

Mr. ZAKA: Not really. Actually, one of the main people who have been pushing the case is a journalist called Yvonne Ridley, who was also held by the Taliban at one point, and subsequently she converted to Islam. And she's one of the people who's been pushing this case as a miscarriage of justice. Even Pakistani journalists cannot say concretely, like, where Aafia Siddiqui was for those five years.

INSKEEP: Has the coverage of this case in Pakistan increased suspicion of the United States within Pakistan?

Mr. ZAKA: Generally yes. Legislators in Pakistan are siding with Aafia Siddiqui. In addition, the government of Pakistan has paid costs for her defense in the U.S. And even the president of Pakistan has requested that she be repatriated to Pakistan on the grounds that she is not entirely fit to stand trial and also because they suspect the case has not got merit.

INSKEEP: Is it too much to say that the differing perceptions of this case have had a poisonous effect?

Mr. ZAKA: Well, I think it's definitely one of those things that have created a lot of tension and mistrust between Pakistan and the U.S. In addition to this, there are issues of the Pakistani government not granting U.S. State officials' visas in order to process the aid that's been promised.

So, it's a number of things and it culminates mostly with the drone attacks, which are extremely unpopular in Pakistan. So, I wouldn't give too much credence to this as an individual thing, but in a long series of events, yes, it is poisoning the atmosphere of cooperation between the two countries.

INSKEEP: Fasi Zaka is a columnist and also a television host of the satirical news program, "News, Views and Confused" in Pakistan. Thanks very much.

Mr. ZAKA: Thank you very much.

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