By Petra Bartosiewicz / New York
Aafia Siddiqui may be a minor light in the constellation of alleged al-Qaeda operatives, but her New York City trial may be a test case for the way justice is meted out to one of the major figures accused of running the terror organization.
Siddiqui is a US trained, Pakistani neuroscientist charged with attempted murder for allegedly firing an M-4 automatic rifle at a group of U.S. soldiers and FBI agents in Afghanistan. Her case has been major news in much of the Muslim world — and a crush of journalists from Pakistan have been struggling to gain access to a trial hemmed in by security-conscious New York City officials.
How the foreign press is able to follow the court proceedings — and thus perceive the fairness of the trial — will have an impact on upcoming high-profile terrorism trials like that of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other suspected 9/11 plotters, likely to be held in the same courthouse as the Siddiqui case.
“If we were able to file a transcript of the proceedings they’d probably print it,” Iftikhar Ali, a reporter with the Associated Press of Pakistan, said of the Siddiqui trial. “That’s how much interest there is in this case.” But Ali, like many other reporters from overseas, has been hampered in gaining access to the live proceedings.
Journalists from Pakistan on assignment in New York have been largely excluded from the courtroom. Because of tight restrictions observed by the presiding Judge Richard Berman, not a single Pakistani reporter had been granted a press credential when opening statements began on January 26, 2010. They were instead sent to an overflow courtroom to watch the proceedings via video link.
In the overflow room I met journalists from Pakistan with United Nations and U.S. State Department issued press credentials. They work for some of the biggest outlets in their countries, including BBC Urdu, the Associated Press in Pakistan, Jang, Dawn, Geo and Aaj TV. None were issued credentials for the trial, though some had applied weeks ago.
We watched the proceedings on a flat screen television. The view didn’t include any of the exhibits being offered into evidence, among them multiple diagrams of the scene of the shooting and incriminating documents allegedly written by Siddiqui.
At one point a key government eyewitness stepped off the witness stand and out of range of both the camera and microphone to use a visual aid to demonstrate where he was during the shooting. He was permitted to give much of his testimony off camera.
Ali, who has been at the court every day of the trial — including jury selection — was granted access to the main courtroom for about five minutes on the first day, but was escorted out when court security guards realized he was not on the list of approved media. At the time the only other occupants of the four-row press box, which covers half the available seating in the courtroom with room for about 20 individuals, were one each from the The New York Times, The New York Post and the New York Daily News. The court has officially recognized only media who carry New York Police Department issued press passes, traditionally reserved for reporters who regularly cover crime scenes and certain public events in the city. Out of the approximately 30 such individuals from U.S. news outlets who were eligible to attend the trial, most were not present for opening statements.
“We’ve been coming to all the pretrial hearings and we were never told there was going to be a different system for the trial. We were told the press will be allowed,” Ayesha Tanzeem, a journalist with Voice of America Urdu said.
Individuals in the overflow room, including the Pakistani journalists, were for the first time ushered into the main courtroom during the afternoon session. But with the exception of a BBC Urdu reporter and a Samaa TV reporter who received official passes, none have been granted a press credential that would guarantee them a seat on future days.
The decision to accept solely the NYPD pass for the Siddiqui trial came from the judge’s chambers, says Elly Harrold of the District Executive’s office, the administrative arm at the federal courthouse. “Of course there are exceptions,” Harrold said, “but I’m not at liberty to discuss that.”
Although Siddiqui is not charged with any terrorism-related crime, security concerns are paramount though the procedures seem to be unevenly enforced. During the lunch break on the first day of the Siddiqui trial a group of Muslim men praying in the waiting areas outside the courtroom were afterwards asked to leave the floor. That prevented them from securing a place in line for the afternoon session. Several Muslim women in hijabs were also given similar instructions, but others in the same area, dressed in business attire, including this reporter, were permitted to stay. On the second day of the trial metal detectors were posted outside the courtroom and individuals were asked for photo identification and their names and addresses were logged by court security officers. At the close of proceedings on January 21, defense attorney Charles Swift protested the practice. “The suggestion is that the gallery may be a threat,” said Swift, calling the measure “highly prejudicial.”
Petra Bartosiewicz is writing a book on terrorism trials in the U.S., The Best Terrorists We Could Find, to be published by Nation Books early next year. You can find her daily coverage of the Aafia Siddiqui trial at the Cageprisoners website.