The man who authorities say was holding hostages inside a Texas synagogue on Saturday demanded the release of a Pakistani woman who is imprisoned nearby on charges of trying to kill American service members in Afghanistan.
The woman, Aafia Siddiqui, is serving an 86-year prison sentence after being convicted in Manhattan in 2010 on charges that she sought to shoot U.S. military officers while being detained in Afghanistan two years earlier.
For the Justice Department, which had accused Siddiqui of being an al-Qaida operative, it was a significant conviction in the fight against international extremism. But to her supporters, many of whom believed in her innocence, the case embodied what they saw as an overzealous post September 11-American judicial system.
Here’s a closer look at the case:
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WHO IS AAFIA SIDDIQUI?
She’s a Pakistani neuroscientist who studied in the United States at prestigious institutions — Brandeis University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
She attracted the attention of American law enforcement in the years after the September 11 attacks. Top FBI and Justice Department described her as an “al-Qaida operative and facilitator” at a May 2004 news conference in which they warned of intelligence showing al-Qaida planned an attack in the coming months.
In 2008, she was detained by authorities in Afghanistan. American officials said they found in her possession handwritten notes that discussed the construction of so-called “dirty bombs” and that listed various locations in the U.S. that could be targeted in a “mass casualty attack.” Inside an interview room at an Afghan police compound, authorities say, she grabbed the M-4 rifle of one of a U.S. Army officer and opened fire on members of the U.S. team assigned to interrogate her.
She was convicted in 2010 on charges including attempting to kill U.S. nationals outside the United States. At her sentencing hearing, she gave rambling statements in which she delivered a message of world peace — and also forgave the judge. She expressed frustration at arguments from her own lawyers who said she deserved leniency because she was mentally ill.
”I’m not paranoid,” she said at one point. “I don’t agree with that.”
WHAT WAS THE REACTION?
Pakistani officials immediately decried the punishment, which prompted protests in multiple cities and criticism in the media.
The prime minister at the time, Yousuf Raza Gilani, called her the “daughter of the nation” and vowed to campaign for her release from jail.
In the years since, Pakistani leaders have openly floated the idea of swaps or deals that could result in her release.
Faizan Syed, Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Dallas Fort-Worth Texas, said the group considers Siddiqui to have been “caught in the war on terror” and as well as a political prisoner who was wrongly accused through flawed evidence. He nonetheless strongly condemned the hostage-taking, calling it wrong, heinous and ”something that is completely undermining our efforts to get Dr. Aaifa released.” She has also garnered support from accused militants in the United States. An Ohio man who admitted he plotted to kill U.S. military members after receiving training in Syria also planned to fly to Texas and attack the federal prison where Siddiqui is being held in an attempt to free her. The man, Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud, was sentenced in 2018 to 22 years in prison.
WHAT’S THE LATEST ON SIDDIQUI’S IMPRISONMENT?
Siddiqui is being held at a federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas. She was attacked in July by another inmate at the facility and suffered serious injuries, according to court documents.
In a lawsuit against the federal Bureau of Prisons, Siddiqui’s lawyers said another inmate “smashed a coffee mug filled with scaling hot liquid” into her face. When Siddiqui curled herself into a fetal position, the other woman began to punch and kick her, leaving her with injuries so severe that she needed to be taken by wheelchair to the prison’s medical unit, the suit says.
Siddiqui was left with burns around her eyes and a three-inch scar near her left eye, the lawsuit says. She also suffered bruises on her arms and legs and an injury to her cheek. The attack prompted protests by human rights activists and religious groups, calling for improved prison conditions. The activists have also called on the Pakistani government to fight for her release from U.S. custody.