Some legal aspects of Aafia Siddiqui’s case: A rebuttal to Babar Sattar – by Usman Ahmad

‘Blinkered justice’?

As a nation we suffer from what can only be described as persecution complex. The knee-jerk reaction of “they are out to get us” has been our response to countless issues ranging from the war on terror to the general treatment of Pakistan by the international community. The sentiment has been on display in the case of Dr Aafia Siddiqui too.

Our government and our society failed to realise that the best way for justice to be served and for Dr Siddiqui to be released from the US custody was to arrange for a strong defence during the court case. Rather, we focused our attention on being indignant, insulting and occasionally lighting up an effigy or two of prominent American personalities. (Of course, thrown in there was some pretty strong anti-Semitic rhetoric to keep things spiced up.)

Babar Sattar too in his article “Blinkered Justice” (Feb 6), did not explore the facts and circumstances leading up to the conviction of Dr Siddiqui by a Manhattan jury. Mr Sattar appears convinced that if the accused were a designer-scarf wearing Caucasian lady, she would probably have been acquitted. While I’ll concede that the evidence presented by the prosecution appears flimsy at best, Mr Sattar’s method of lashing out against the US legal system is far from satisfactory.

Mr Sattar’s contention that the high conviction rate of African Americans is a result of racial bias is only very marginally true. (Referring to them as “blacks,” as he does, is akin to describing all people of South Asian descent as “browns,” something I’m sure Mr Sattar would not be pleased with.) These convictions are overwhelmingly based on drug-related crimes, and not a manifestation of race relations in the USA. While it can be argued sthat the drug laws in the US are absurd and put the victims of the drug issues behind bars, that is a debate for another time. The point at hand is that it is inappropriate to term the vast majority of jurors in the US as racially biased simply on the basis of this statistics.

Juries in the USA serve a great purpose by allowing an accused to defend himself in front of ordinary, everyday citizens; people who take out time from their jobs and lives and fulfil this social duty of ensuring that a single person in a robe does not get to decide the fate of defendants. Callously describing them as a mob of racially motivated people out to put anyone who isn’t fair-skinned behind bars lacks any semblance of intellectual rigour and, quite frankly, is insulting to anyone who has ever served on a jury and sat through countless hours of legal arguments. In fact, given the diverse population of New York City, it is highly unlikely that the jury in Dr Siddiqui’s case was even entirely Caucasian, something Mr Sattar seems to implicitly assume.

Finally, Mr Sattar makes the mistake of providing only half the story in terms of the DNA evidence issue that he raises. At the outset, I would point out that 30 per cent of the convictions overturned as a result of the efforts of the Innocence Programme he mentions were of white defendants, a fairly substantial number in a total of some 250 overturned convictions. Moreover, the entire purpose of the Innocence Programme has never been to identify racially charged convictions and pursue their reversal. Rather, it insists on the use of modern forensic technology not available at the time of the respective trials, thus making it entirely irrelevant to the trial of Dr Siddiqui. For purposes of illustration, a parallel to Dr Siddiqui’s case would be if somehow it could be demonstrated on appeal that the weapon she allegedly used to assault the US soldiers was not even a weapon to begin with but a random piece of plastic.

I appreciate Mr Sattar’s concern for the seemingly bizarre conviction of a fellow citizen. But his impulsive reaction of criticising the general American population and the US legal system is altogether counterproductive and will not serve to help Dr Siddiqui in her quest for an acquittal. The more important question, as far as I am concerned, is why the Pakistani government waited until it was too late to make all these pledges of support.

It was not until November last year, less than eight weeks before the start of the trial, that monetary assistance was pledged by the prime minister – a timeframe any lawyer would tell you is way too short for any tangible good to come out of it. Moreover, why were witnesses for the defence not flown from Pakistan to New York to give testimony at the trial? Even if visa issues were to restrict such travel, testimony could surely have been presented via any of the plethora of electronic means allowed by the US courts.

Why was the lead defence counsel a lady specialising in family law with only marginal criminal law experience? International treaties would have required the US to allow all sorts of consular assistance from Pakistan to Dr Siddiqui. Why wasn’t an appropriate legal team assembled to provide assistance to her – both in terms of assisting the government in Islamabad to decide the best course of action and also of providing better defence at the actual trial?

The US is teeming with competent (and appropriately specialised) lawyers of Pakistani origin who could have been engaged to provide legal assistance, or at the very least, ensure that Dr Siddiqui did not feel that her defence team was a part of the conspiracy to put her behind bars. Why was no one there to guide Dr Siddiqui through her trial and advise her not to make the kind of self-destructive statements that she did in open court?

Given the many levels of appeal in the US legal system, there are still plenty of opportunities for justice to be served in this unpleasant case, and I hope that Mr Sattar uses his fine legal education to provide proactive assistance rather than blaming the system, once the matter has been fully settled to the detriment of Dr Siddiqui.

The writer is an attorney currently practising law in New York.


Source: The News, 17 Feb



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