ISLAMABAD: Amid plenty of pity and concern for US-convicted Pakistan-born neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui, some serious doubts about the claimed chronology of her case were also heard in the National Assembly on Wednesday.
A Musharraf-era cabinet minister, Faisal Saleh Hayat, denied the oft-repeated claim that Dr Aafia, sentenced to 86 years’ imprisonment by a New York court last week for trying to kill US troops in Afghanistan, was picked up by an intelligence agency in Karachi on March 30, 2003, and handed over to the US authorities when he was in charge of the interior ministry.
Interior Minister Rahman Malik responded to an opposition-sought debate on the case, marked by a lot of anti-American rhetoric, with a flurry of assurances that the government had done whatever was possible and would continue that policy to help out what many members called a “daughter of Pakistan”, but also cited some apparently intriguing instances of the woman, who is also accused by the US authorities of links with Al Qaeda, and her family refusing legal and political help.
And PML-N member Chaudhry Birjees Tahir, who opened the debate as a sponsor of an adjournment motion and provoked former minister Hayat over the alleged role of the Musharraf government in the case, seemed to be out of his head in demanding that Pakistan ‘stop’ being a US ally in the so-called war on terror, stop the American embassy in Islamabad from functioning and no parliamentarian visit the United States until Dr Aafia is “returned to Pakistan”.
Mr Tahir’s demands seemed to be even beyond the scope of comparative hard line taken by his party, whose leaders, as stated by Mr Hayat in response to angry chants against him from PML-N benches, had not hesitated to go to the US embassy for talks with a US envoy.
Despite the sound and fury over the merits of the sentence, there were some sober suggestions as well. Mr Hayat, who is also PML-Q’s parliamentary leader in the house, asked Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to set up a joint committee of the two houses of parliament to interact with US Congress and other authorities over the issue.
PML-N’s Engineer Khurram Dastgir asked for a government briefing to parliament members about the facts of the Aafia case as well as some recent Nato helicopter attacks on suspected militant targets in Pakistan’s tribal area.
PPP’s Fakhrunnia Khokhar, a former high court judge, proposed a joint appeal by female members of the house to US President Barack Obama to commute the convict’s sentence so she could return to Pakistan.
“The government has done more than (it was required to do to help Dr Aafia) and it will continue to do it,” the interior minister said while recalling interactions with the US authorities by President Asif Ali Zardari, the prime minister and the minister himself as well as a financial grant for legal aid, and formation of a committee headed by him and including foreign, interior and law secretaries to pursue the case.
But while repeating the government’s intention to take up the matter at the political level with the US administration, which can have no say with its courts, he said Dr Aafia’s help was a must to counter allegations levelled against her.
He said he would insist on sending a parliamentary delegation to the United States despite objections from Dr Aafia’s family and added: “I will do whatever is possible to bring her back.”
Mr Hayat, who cautioned the house members against being swayed by sentiments at the cost of facts, said he could state on oath that Dr Aafia was not arrested on March 30, 2003, and that nobody was handed over to the United States when he was interior minister from Nov 2002 to Sept 2004, and recalled a list of most wanted persons issued by the US Federal Investigating Agency in 2004 citing Dr Aafia among the top seven, her reported contacts with her mother between May and July 2003 and her maternal uncle saying in 2008 that she lived with her twice.
Earlier, the house admitted an opposition adjournment motions for a debate on Thursday on Nato attacks on the tribal areas.