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Mahawish Rezvi Headshot

The Mystery Behind 'Lady Al Qaeda'

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Trying terror suspects in civilian courts in New York is a contentious issue. That's why it is so surprising to see the lack of media coverage surrounding the recent Manhattan trial and conviction of Aafia Siddiqui -- also known as 'Lady Al Qaeda' -- compared to the intense coverage and opposition to the 9/11-terror case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad in the same city.

Many people in the United States aren't even aware of Siddiqui, a US-educated neuroscientist from Pakistan, and the story of her trial. But Pakistanis certainly are.

The United States government accused her of shooting US soldiers while in custody in Afghanistan. How she landed in their custody in the first place, is contested by both sides. Siddiqui, a mother of three, says she was picked up by US agents in Karachi, Pakistan and taken to a secret prison where she was strip-searched and tortured since 2003.

American officials say that although Siddiqui was sought by the FBI for having links to Al Qaeda, she wasn't in their custody till July 2008 when Afghan police arrested her and handed her over to US soldiers. She was later brought over to New York and charged for attempted murder.

Americans claimed she shot US officers during her interrogation in Afghanistan. Siddiqui denies the charge, and during her trial she was thrown out of the courtroom by the judge several times for her emotional outbursts. Her defense team argued her mental instability and did not want her to testify on her own behalf, but the judge allowed her to do so.

Her defense team argued vehemently that there was no physical evidence against Siddiqui. The prosecution did not have any finger print evidence on the gun that she allegedly shot the officers with. But the jury didn't see that as enough reasonable doubt and found her guilty. The evidence issue brings up memories of the O.J. Simpson trail a few decades ago. As Johnnie Cochran put it "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit," but that didn't seem to work this time around.

The guilty verdict for Siddiqui has stirred national sentiment in Pakistan, where this trial was closely followed. Political parties have taken up the issue. Human rights and religious groups have banded together in protest of this verdict since it was handed down earlier in the week.

The decision is viewed as another example of excessive American influence in Pakistan. To the United States, the issue seems to be seen as trivial. But seemingly minor impacts can have a large impact when one country feels that it operates at a permanent disadvantage in relation to a larger power.

Aafia Siddiqui's case made little news in the three weeks of trial. Given the critical importance of America's relationship with Pakistan, it is surprising that Toyota's recall took up more headlines than one of the few terrorist trials within the United States.

This lack of interest in the Siddiqui trial is surprising because she is the only woman to be tried for terrorism in Afghanistan. She was on the FBI's most wanted woman list for years, and when finally caught, she didn't get much press either.

This is of course in stark contrast with the very public debate on the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad. Neighborhood protests and intense media coverage for the '9/11 terror trials' have started long before the trial has even begun.

It's not surprising that New Yorkers feel a much stronger reaction to the man who is accused of orchestrating an attack on their own city. But for Pakistanis Siddiqui might actually be the more important defendant.

So who gets to decide what terror suspect is high profile or not? A case that can damage relations with an indispensable ally in the war on terror? Or a case that evokes bad memories of 9/11? No one knows.