Lawyers for a Pakistani scientist serving an 86 year prison sentence for shooting at U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan told an appeals court Friday that she was so mentally ill, she should have been barred from testifying at her own trial.
Aafia Siddiqui, once a bright young student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brandeis University, was branded a fugitive terror suspect after she left the U.S. in 2003 and married a nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the master planner behind the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Her whereabouts were a mystery until she was detained in Afghanistan in 2008. A day later, she was wounded during a confrontation with U.S. authorities who had gone to interrogate her. Six witnesses testified that she had grabbed a rifle and fired at the Americans.
Siddiqui's lawyer, Dawn Cardi, told a three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday that even though her client was judged competent to stand trial, she was so disabled by paranoid schizophrenia that the court should have taken the unusual step of barring her from testifying.
"She had no intelligent understanding of what was going on," Cardi said. "She was not rational."
Cardi also argued Siddiqui was in the throes of mental illness when she made incriminating statements to FBI agents at a hospital in Afghanistan following the shooting. At the time, she was on pain medication, was restrained to her bed and was being questioned for several hours each day.
"She was clearly mentally ill. They knew she was mentally ill," Cardi said. "The fact that she may have been lucid for some period of time ... doesn't undermine the fact that it was an involuntary statement."
At her trial, Siddiqui fiercely denied that she was mentally ill, and she rejected a doctor's diagnosis that she was paranoid. She also insisted that she be allowed to testify, over the objection of her legal team.
The judges who heard the appeal Friday expressed concern that taking away a defendant's right to testify in their own defense would be an extraordinary measure, and maybe an unconstitutional one.
Appeals Court Judge Richard Wesley noted that Siddiqui's trial testimony, while unusual, wasn't disruptive. She didn't use the witness stand as a platform to rail against the U.S. or make a political speech.
"What do you do with a client who simply wants to have her say?" Wesley asked. He also suggested that Siddiqui was intelligent enough to understand her circumstances. "This is a woman who has a Ph.D., correct?"
Justice Department lawyers argued that Siddiqui clearly understood the questions she was asked during the trial, and also by the FBI agents who questioned her in Afghanistan, and said the court would have been overstepping its authority if it barred her from testifying.
The judges didn't indicate when they would rule on the appeal.