Woman dubbed Al-Qaida backer skips NY arraignment

By: rf
By: rf

NEW YORK (AP) -- An American-educated Pakistani woman who's been labeled an al-Qaida supporter refused to appear in federal court Thursday to answer charges that she tried to kill U.S. soldiers and FBI agents after they detained her this summer in Afghanistan.

Aafia Siddiqui had been expected to plead not guilty to attempted murder and assault charges contained in an indictment unsealed earlier this week. Prosecutors say that when taken into custody, she was carrying handwritten notes referring to a "mass casualty attack" and listing the Empire State Building and other New York landmarks.

In court, Siddiqui's lawyers told a judge their client didn't want to go through the humiliation of a strip-search - a precaution taken with all prisoners when moved between from federal lockups and courthouses.

The lawyers also claimed Siddiqui, before being arrested and brought to New York, had been kidnapped by U.S. operatives and kept in secret captivity in Pakistan. The ordeal, they said, left her with severe physical and mental problems.

"She's a really smart person, but she's a mess, judge," said defense attorney Elizabeth Fink. "We believe it's because she's been tortured."

U.S. District Judge Richard Berman put off the arraignment to give Siddiqui's lawyers time to either persuade her to come to court or arrange for her to enter a plea from jail using a closed-circuit camera. He also asked the defense to propose a plan to evaluate her competency to stand trial.

Another hearing was set for Sept. 22. If convicted, she faces up to 20 years in prison.

Siddiqui, 36, came to the United States in 1990 and studied at the University of Houston and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she got a bachelor's degree in biology in 1995. She later studied neuroscience as a graduate student at Brandeis University.

In 2004, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller III identified Siddiqui as one of seven people the FBI wanted to question about suspected ties to al-Qaida. Her family has vehemently denied any link.

Authorities say she vanished in Pakistan in 2003. She mysteriously resurfaced in July outside a government building in central Afghanistan's Ghazni province and was stopped by police.

During Siddiqui's interrogation she picked up a soldier's rifle, announced her "desire to kill Americans" and fired the rifle but missed, the indictment says. She was wounded by return fire.

The indictment contains no charges of terrorism. A government official briefed on the case has told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity that the New York landmarks were a "wish list" of potential targets but that there was no evidence of a credible plot.

Outside court on Thursday, about two dozen demonstrators protested Siddiqui's arrest and demanded her release.


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