NEW YORK, Jan. 29, 2010— -- After a series of outbursts resulted in her twice being kicked out of the courtroom in which she is on trial, a Pakistani woman accused of trying to kill American soldiers at a detention center in Afghanistan in 2008, finally took the stand Thursday and denied she ever fired a shot.
"It's just ridiculous… I never attempted murder, no way. It's a heavy word," Aafia Siddiqui, a devoutly Muslim, MIT-trained neuroscientist and mother of two told jurors in a Manhattan federal court.
The allegations for which Siddiqui, 37, is being tried are deadly serious, if convicted, she could be sentenced to life in prison, but the courtroom antics of the so-called "Lady al Qaeda" border on a farce. A petite woman who keeps all but her eyes hidden behind a white headscarf and veil, Siddiqui's own lawyers fought to keep her from testifying in her own defense claiming her "diminished capacity" would "turn the trial into a spectacle."
But the events of recent weeks, some observers could argue, have already turned the trial into a spectacle.
Siddiqui, 37, is charged with attempted murder. Prosecutors say while being held for questioning at an Afghan police station in July 2008, she grabbed an unattended military rifle, shouted "Allah Akbar," and shot two rounds at a U.S. soldiers and FBI agents.
When captured earlier in 2008, U.S. officials say Siddiqui, an alleged al Qaeda operative, had in her possession plans for a "mass casualty attack" on several New York City landmarks, including the Brooklyn Bridge and Statue of Liberty.
During jury selection earlier this month, Siddiqui said she was "boycotting" the trial and demanded Jews be excluded from serving on the jury.
"I have a feeling everyone here is them [Jews], subject to genetic testing… They should be excluded if you want to be fair," she told federal Judge Richard Berman. That same day she tossed a note across the courtroom to prosecutors asking for time off to pray.
After receiving her undergraduate degree from MIT, Siddiqui received two graduate degrees in neuroscience from Brandies University, a nonsectarian Jewish university in Boston.
On Monday a clandestine soldier who was at the police station when Siddiqui allegedly began shooting, broke down on the witness stand while describing the injuries he sustained during his tour in Afghanistan.
Siddiqui interrupted his testimony, lunging across the table where she sat, and while pointing at the soldier said cryptically: "I feel sorry for you. Don't do that. It will make American look bad in international court."
The outburst resulted in two federal marshals restraining her, and ejecting her from the courtroom. It was the second time she was removed following an outburst.
Also on Monday, two jurors were excused from duty after they told the judge that a man in the visitors' gallery made a hand motion as if he were firing a gun at them and mouthed an obscenity.
One of the jurors told the judge he was "really freaked out" by the incident and another said he could not remain impartial "anytime anyone makes what I view as a death threat."
Siddiqui fought with her lawyers to be allowed to testify in her own defense. Her lawyers said she was "driven by her severe mental illness" and should not be allowed to testify, fearing she would incriminate herself. Prosecutors argued she was more cagey than crazy and should not be denied the fundamental right to defend herself if she chose to.
On Thursday, Judge Berman allowed Siddiqui to testify.
In turns during her testimony she came off as combative and intelligent but sometimes appeared to be bordering on the delusional.
She denied shooting soldiers and FBI agents with the unattended the M4 rifle saying: "What does an M4 look like?"
Siddiqui, who was shot in return by U.S. soldiers and taken to a military hospital, claims she was shot while trying to escape. She said she had been tortured in a secret prison and feared being taken back there.
She told jurors her case is an example of how authorities "frame people" and that she chose to testify because she alone "can end the war."
She said there were anonymous American agents acting against the interests of the U.S., people she called "fake Americans" who she could expose to end the war.
"Let me talk," she said, "I can bring you peace."