ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — The country’s leaders were quick to show their outrage at the sentence handed down to a Pakistani woman convicted of attacking U.S. agents, as were opposition politicians. By the time weekly prayers rolled round, protesters were battling police and the Pakistani Taliban had offered its support.
The sentencing of Aafia Siddique to 86 years in an American jail left enemies and political opponents reading from the same script Friday, riding a wave of anger on behalf of a woman widely believed to be an innocent victim of a vengeful, post 9/11 American justice system.
The reaction was a reminder of the deep mistrust many Pakistanis have of the United States nine years after the two countries formed an uncomfortable alliance in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. While Washington tries to impress on the country it is a long-term partner, many Pakistanis persist on seeing it as a threat.
Siddique, a 38-year-old American-educated neuroscientist, was detained in Afghanistan in 2008 by Afghan authorities. She was convicted of seizing an M4 rifle weapon from one of her U.S. interrogators there and attempting to kill them. She was severely wounded in the incidents.
Siddique and her defense lawyers deny she ever fired a weapon. Her family and supporters say she disappeared along with her three children five years before she turned up in Afghanistan and allege she was either held in a secret jail by American authorities or Pakistan’s spy agency.
U.S. and Pakistani officials have denied that, and there has been little evidence to support their claims. But they have been repeated so often they are taken as the standard version by many of her supporters and much of the media, which has largely rallied in her defense.
The claims of secret detention have resonance because Pakistani security forces have rounded up many terror suspects and handed them over to the United States in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Under a military ruler at the time, its government has never admitted how many people it arrested at the behest of Washington.
Such is the perceived force of public opinion, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and other leading officials have had to stress their efforts over the last three years to try and get her back to Pakistan. The government spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to give her quality legal representation in New York.
Gilani said he had lobbied U.S. officials for Siddique’s release to “improve the U.S. image in Pakistan.”
“We all are united, and we want the daughter of the nation to come back to Pakistan,” he told parliament, which unanimously adopted a resolution demanding Siddique’s repatriation after her sentencing Thursday. “I fought for her, my lawyer fought for her and now I will take up this matter on a political level.”
Despite his remarks, there is little the government can do to get bring Siddique home. Islamabad has no agreement with the United States that allows Pakistanis convicted of crimes there to serve part of their sentences at home. A presidential pardon for Siddique looks very unlikely.
Much of the criticism over the last 24 hours has been directed at the government, which is already unpopular in many circles because of its failure to improve the economy, its alliance with the United States and faltering efforts to respond to this summer’s floods.
“Due to the shameless rulers of Pakistan, the United States got the courage to take Aafia to the United States and punish there,” said Munawar Hassan, the chief of Jamat-i-Islami, the country’s largest Islamist party, in a rally attended by around 8,000 people in the northwestern city of Peshawar.
Fauzia Siddique, Aafia’s sister, has led a tireless and vocal campaign for her release since 2008 and looked after two of her children.
“This verdict is a test for the Muslim global community and the Pakistanis,” Fauzia told a gathering of Jamat-i-Islami female activists in Karachi. “It is mandatory on all Muslims to get the daughter of the Muslims free from the prison of the infidels.”
Before her arrest in Afghanistan, Siddique had been accused by the U.S. of links to al-Qaida. Prosecutors said they found her carrying notes referencing a “mass casualty attack” on New York City landmarks and a stash of sodium cyanide. But she was only ever tried in relation to the attack on her captors in Afghanistan.
Her loudest supporters have been Pakistan’s Islamist political parties and groups, which have embraced the opportunity to be seen defending a Pakistan Muslim woman as well as accusing the government of collaborating in her arrest and trial.
In Karachi, police fired tear gas to disburse rock-throwing protesters trying to march to the U.S. Consulate. At least five people were arrested. In Islamabad, 100 people attempting to reach the U.S. Embassy scuffled with police near a five-star hotel, witnesses said.
“Down with America! Jihad, Jihad!” the protesters shouted.
The Pakistani Taliban, which is waging war against the Pakistani government and has killed scores of innocent men, women and children in bombings over the last three years, also spoke out in support of Aafia.
“We will not appeal or beg to America for the release of Aafia Siddique,” said Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq by phone from an undisclosed location. “We will bring her back by using the power of the gun.”
Associated Press writers Riaz Khan in Peshawar, Ashraf Khan in Karachi and Rasool Dawar in Mir Ali contributed to this report.