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'Disappeared' issue festers in Pakistan

Hundreds are believed to be held as terrorism suspects. The arrest of one who vanished in 2003 raises questions.

August 06, 2008|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — The high-profile arrest of a Pakistani woman suspected of Al Qaeda links casts a spotlight on an issue her nation's fledgling civilian government has been slow to confront: years of official secrecy surrounding the fate of hundreds of people rounded up as terrorism suspects.

Some human rights activists believe that Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani-born neuroscientist who appeared Tuesday in federal district court in New York, was originally "disappeared" by Pakistani authorities five years ago, possibly at U.S. behest.

American officials said this week that Siddiqui had been arrested in Afghanistan last month and flown to the United States on Monday after recuperating from a gunshot wound that authorities said she suffered in a shootout after her capture.

Siddiqui, who trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, initially dropped out of sight in 2003 in the Pakistani port city of Karachi, at a time when U.S. authorities wanted to question her about her suspected ties to Al Qaeda.

Human rights activists were divided over whether the Siddiqui case would ratchet up pressure on the 5-month-old Pakistani government to account for the whereabouts of hundreds of people who have been reported missing by their families. Many presumed detainees are believed to be languishing incommunicado, denied access to counsel but not charged with any crime.

"One hopes that this case is going to bring more attention to the issue of the 'disappeared,' " said Ali Dayan Hasan, Pakistan researcher for Human Rights Watch. His organization and other rights groups had raised suspicion that Siddiqui was secretly held at some point by U.S. or Pakistani authorities, or both.

The Pakistani government has never acknowledged detaining Siddiqui and made no statement Tuesday about her arrest. However, its diplomats in the United States have sought consular access to her while she remains in U.S. custody, Pakistani officials said.

Siddiqui appeared in court Tuesday to face accusations that she tried to kill U.S. soldiers and FBI personnel during an alleged struggle last month. Her lawyer, Elizabeth Fink, said Siddiqui hadn't received appropriate medical attention since being shot July 18, a charge denied by the government's lawyer.

Fink also said that the account by U.S. authorities that Siddiqui snatched the M-4 rifle from a U.S. soldier and tried to kill FBI agents and U.S. soldiers was "patently absurd."

A preliminary hearing was set for Aug. 19.

Pakistan's civilian government, which took office in March after dealing a stunning electoral defeat to the party of President Pervez Musharraf, has said it wants to move ahead with resolving missing-persons cases such as Siddiqui's. But the governing coalition, beset by infighting, has had a difficult time establishing any significant authority over Pakistan's intelligence establishment.

Most of the missing are thought to be held under the auspices of the military or security agencies such as the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence.

Siddiqui's lawyer in Pakistan, Iqbal Jaffry, has been trying to force officials to disclose any information they have about the neuroscientist's whereabouts over the last five years. U.S. military officials denied that she was held at Bagram air base in Afghanistan other than the hospital stay there after her arrest and the alleged gun battle.

The Pakistani Supreme Court agreed earlier to hear Jaffry's motion, aimed at compelling the Pakistani government to disclose what it knows about Siddiqui's status after her disappearance. A hearing is set for Sept. 2.

The politically explosive issue of the "disappeared" is entangled with what has become a drawn-out dispute over the restoration of judges fired last year by Musharraf, when he was still the country's military ruler. Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who was among those dismissed by Musharraf, had been taking measures to help the missing-persons cases move forward.

The governing coalition has been unable to agree on how and when to reinstate the fired judges, and most observers believe the current high court bench, which remains beholden to Musharraf, is unlikely to take strong steps regarding the "disappeared."

The current judges, said Hasan, the researcher, "are unlikely to engage in judicial activism that would embarrass the army or intelligence."

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laura.king@latimes.com

Times staff writer Louise Roug in New York and special correspondent Mubashir Zaidi in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

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