Testimony details past of Al Qaeda suspect

Mental health of MIT graduate an issue in trial

By Larry Neumeister
Associated Press / July 5, 2009
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NEW YORK - A US-trained scientist accused of being an Al Qaeda operative was living freely in Pakistan and Afghanistan for portions of five years before her arrest last year, a psychologist said, disputing assertions that the scientist had spent those years in the custody of foreign authorities.

Newly public court documents contain reports by psychologists who treated Aafia Siddiqui after she was arrested in Afghanistan in July 2008 and was charged with taking a gun and shooting at US soldiers and FBI agents. She was shot in the abdomen in the encounter.

The testimony of the mental health specialists will be at issue beginning tomorrow at a hearing in US District Court in Manhattan to determine whether the 37-year-old Pakistani is competent to stand trial.

Defense lawyers for Siddiqui are challenging her competency for trial, citing the conclusions of a specialist who found she is suffering from delusional disorder and depression.

Prosecutors cite reports by psychologists who said Siddiqui’s behavior reflects malingering, the intentional production of grossly exaggerated psychological symptoms aimed at getting a result, such as avoiding trial.

Leslie Powers, a forensic psychologist, wrote in a document dated May 4 and put in the court’s public file late Thursday that new information helps show Siddiqui was living freely in Pakistan and Afghanistan from 2003 to 2008.

Some of Siddiqui’s supporters and her former lawyers had contended she had probably been taken into custody by foreign military intelligence authorities during those years and was subjected to torture, sexual abuse, and beatings.

Siddiqui received an undergraduate degree in biology from MIT in 1995 and a doctorate in neuroscience from Brandeis University in 2001. She left the United States in June 2002 with her three children.

Powers wrote that Siddiqui has told the FBI that she worked at the Karachi Institute of Technology in 2005, that she tried to look for her husband in Afghanistan in the winter of 2007, and that she stayed for a time in Quetta, Pakistan.

The psychologist also wrote that Siddiqui’s former husband, Mohammad Amjad Khan, reported seeing either her or their children on several occasions in 2003, 2004, and 2005.

“While her accounts of her time are incomplete, her statements and other facts gathered seem to corroborate that she was not held captive from 2003 until 2008,’’ Powers said.

Powers said Siddiqui was interviewed at length by the FBI for several days after her arrest on July 18, 2008. She said FBI agents who accompanied Siddiqui on her 20-hour flight to the United States Aug. 4 reported that she showed no signs of psychosis or psychological distress and that she was oriented and talkative throughout the trip.

Powers and two other specialists have concluded Siddiqui is competent for trial.

In a defense exhibit, psychologist L. Thomas Kucharski, chairman of the Department of Psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, concluded that Siddiqui suffers from delusional disorder and is depressed.

He said her delusions “include the belief that the court is part of a conspiracy to have her killed, tortured, and/or have her witness the torture of her children.’’

Sally C. Johnson, a professor in the psychiatry department at the University of North Carolina, wrote in a March 16 report that Siddiqui’s medical problems have been treated and stabilized.