The conviction of a Pakistani-born, U.S.-educated neuroscientist for attempting to murder her American interrogators in Afghanistan was upheld Monday by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
Aafia Siddiqui, 40, was convicted in 2010 of the July 18, 2008, attempted murder of U.S. nationals and several other crimes after she picked up an M-4 rifle and fired at Americans who had come to question her following her arrest by Afghan police on suspicion of attempting to attack the governor of Ghazni City, Afghanistan.
Witnesses at her trial said Saddiqui emerged from behind a curtain in a room filled with U.S. military, FBI agents and Afghan personnel and fired the weapon before being shot in the stomach and subdued. One witness reported that she shouted, “I am going to kill all you Americans. You are going to die by my blood.”
Siddiqui’s trial before Judge Richard Berman was preceded by an extended inquiry into her competence to face the charges amid her bizarre behavior and outbursts during pretrial hearings. Siddiqui, against the advice of her counsel that was paid for in part by the government of Pakistan, took the witness stand to testify that she never picked up or fired the weapon.
Berman sentenced Siddiqui in 2010 to 86 years in prison, a sentence that set off protests in Pakistan. Her appeal made several challenges to the judge’s rulings in the case, including Berman’s decision to allow admission of documents found in her possession when she was taken into custody in Ghazni City on July 17, 2008.
The documents included details on how to produce explosives, made reference to a “mass casualty attack” and listed what prosecutors argued was a list of likely terror targets, including the Empire State Building and Brooklyn Bridge.
Judges Richard Wesley, Susan Carney and Eastern District of New York Judge Roslynn Mauskopf, sitting by designation, heard oral arguments in United States v. Siddiqui, 10-3916-cr, on February 10.
Wesley wrote the panel’s opinion, turning aside objections to Berman’s rulings and Siddiqui’s sentence.
The panel first easily rejected Siddiqui’s argument that several of the statutes under which she was convicted do not apply “in an active theatre of war.”
“It would be incongruous to conclude that statutes aimed at protecting United States officers and employees do not apply in areas of conflict where large numbers of officers and employees operate,” Wesley said.
The panel then held that Berman’s admission of the documents found on Siddiqui complied with Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b), which states that evidence of prior crimes, wrongs or other bad acts cannot be used to show a defendant is a bad person or had the propensity to commit the crime.
Siddiqui claimed her defense, that she never fired the M-4, eliminated the issue of intent from the case and thus the relevance of the documents.
“But even assuming that Siddiqui’s defense theory effectively removed any issue of her intent or knowledge, the documentary evidence remained relevant to demonstrate Siddiqui’s motive,” Wesley said, and the issue of motive remains important.
Motive, he said, “an explanation of why the defendant would engage in the charged conduct, becomes highly relevant when the defendant argues that he did not commit the crime.”
And, in any event, even if there had been error, it was harmless, Wesley said, for, “Even without the evidence, the government’s case against Siddiqui can only be fairly characterized as devastating.”
Another basis for the appeal was Berman’s decision to allow Siddiqui to testify despite her counsel’s attempt to keep her off the stand based on mental illness.
“We question whether the Constitution permits a finding that a criminal defendant is competent to stand trial, yet incompetent to determine whether to testify on her own behalf,” Wesley said.
But that was not a question the panel need answer, he said, because “the district court went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that Siddiqui understood the implications of testifying and had the capacity to testify.”
The panel went on to hold that incriminating, un-Mirandized statements Siddiqui made to FBI agents while hospitalized at Bagram Airfield were properly admitted into evidence.
Siddiqui also challenged Berman’s decision to apply both the official victim and the terrorism enhancements in the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. The former applies where victims are selected based on their status as government employees and the latter applies for acts “calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion, or to retaliate against government conduct.”
On the terrorism enhancement, Siddiqui argued the use of the word “calculated” implies an element of long-term planning.
The panel disagreed, saying “calculated” is the equivalent of “intentional” and the enhancement “is applicable where a defendant acts according to a plan, whether developed over a long period of time or developed in a span of seconds.”
Dawn Cardi argued for Siddiqui.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jenna Dabbs argued for the government.