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November 4, 2010

US judge bans defendant from sacking her legal team - even after conviction

Yvonne Ridley

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Throughout her trial in New York Dr. Aafia Siddiqui tried in vain to sack her legal team as is the right of any defendant in any court in the world today.

Her suspicions they were not working in her best interests were almost certainly confirmed when she was found guilty of attempted murder and given an 86-year-sentence.

Had she represented herself it is hard to imagine she could have received a more severe conviction and sentencing.

But I can reveal she is still not free of those who represented her – despite sending a handwritten letter to the court earlier this month to fire her lawyers her request has again been refused.

And even though she has nominated a new lawyer she trusts to represent her, this request has also been turned down and that lawyer is now barred from even attempting to make contact with her until the old team is fired.

It's a frustrating Catch 22 in which yet again the US judicial system ignores the rights of this Pakistani mother of three and the injustices against her continue.

Having being convicted of charges for an alleged crime carried out in Afghanistan she became the first person and only woman in the now discredited War on Terror who was renditioned and forced to stand trial in the US.

The lead section of the legal team was appointed by the US government and their credentials simply did not qualify them to deal with the international complexities of her case. They were family and white collar corporate lawyers.

With the exception of Boston lawyer Elaine Whitefield Sharp who was personally recommended by the family, the others were appointed after being handpicked and paid for by the Pakistan Government for the handsome sum of two million dollars. (Was this a generous gift from the government or a way of controlling a case in which the Pakistan government was complicit?)

Ms Sharp, who originally cleared Dr Siddiqui’s name from of all the FBI terror allegations, certainly did not endear herself to the legal team when she wrote to the Pakistan Government’s representatives making it clear her duty of loyalty was towards her client, Dr Aafia Siddiqui. This could be why the rest of the legal team has now airbrushed her from case.

The entire legal case focussed on a three minute incident in which Dr Siddiqui was shot at point blank range several times by a group of US soldiers. Despite what happened to her, she was the one who ended up being charged with attempted murder of the soldiers in a police station in Ghazni, Afghanistan.

That the case was deemed to be in the jurisdiction of the New York Court is still open to debate by some of the finest legal minds across the world who believe a mis-trial should be called on several counts - not least of all that the defendant had spent five years in secret US detention including Bagram Prison in Afghanistan.

One member of the defence team, Charles Swift, was told that ex-Guantanamo and ex-Bagram detainee Binyam Mohammed was prepared to testify how he saw Dr Siddiqui being brutalised and abused in Bagram. His critical eye witness account would unequivocally place the defendant in the hands of the US military during her missing years. I know this for sure because I told Charles Swift myself and personally handed him a video tape of an interview with Binyam confirming this, when we met in 2009.

One would have thought this sensational information would be crucial to Dr Siddiqui's defence and would certainly explain several untold elements in the case. However this pearl of information was ignored by the legal team.

No wonder then, that she felt the team did not have her best interests at heart. And so she demanded her rights as a defendant to sack her legal representatives. She made this call before and during her trial.

And now she has made it again, but her plea – her right – has astonishingly, yet again fallen on deaf ears.

And once again, the person denying her justice is none other than Judge Richard M. Berman. He decided a long time ago that she was not mentally capable of making such a decision to dismiss her lawyers. This is the same judge, by the way, who originally decided that she was, however, mentally fit to stand trial even though several eminently qualified psychiatrists said she was not.

Judge Berman, clearly under intense political pressure to deliver a showcase trial, would not be swayed and eventually two psychiatrists, who were paid $300,000 dollars for their work, announced Dr Siddiqui was indeed fit to stand trial and might even be malingering.

It was a medical verdict which is now receiving intense scrutiny from a team of doctors from around the world who have come together to question the ethics of those psychiatrists and medics who sat in judgment of the Pakistani mother-of-three. And it is a medical pronouncement, accepted so readily in court by everyone, which I predict will soon collapse under the pressure of this international body of medical experts being led by a British consultant.

So isn't it strange then, that Judge Berman has now personally intervened to ensure that Dr Siddiqui is despatched to American's one and only Federal psychiatric prison for women to serve the 86 year sentence he delivered? A few days ago she was moved to Carswell Psychiatric centre in Texas - its name is known in the US prison system as The Hospital of Horror.

Surely it follows that if Dr Siddiqui is being sent to this mental institution then it follows that she was not mentally fit to stand trial in the first place.

Once again, Judge Berman has made a decision which exposes his long distance relationship with justice. Not only should the trial be now dismissed as a mis-trial but Judge Berman should stand down for bringing his own court into disrepute.

The message is clear to all who believe in justice – DISMISS the trial, DISMISS the lawyers and DISMISS the judge.

Repatriate the Daughter of Pakistan now. 

British journalist Yvonne Ridley is also a patron of Cageprisoners, a London-based NGO concerned with the treatment and welfare of those swept up and imprisoned in the War on Terror. She has investigated the case of Dr Aafia Siddiqui since 2004.

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On July 7, 2024 in Toronto, Canada, Dimitri Lascaris delivered a speech on the right to resist oppression.

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