NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. judge entered a plea of innocent on Tuesday on behalf of a Pakistani woman suspected of links to al Qaeda who prosecutors say may be unfit to face charges of trying to kill U.S. interrogators in Afghanistan.
Aafia Siddiqui, 36, a U.S.-trained neuroscientist who was shot in the abdomen by an officer after allegedly grabbing a U.S. soldier’s gun during questioning in July, was brought to the United States on charges of attempted murder and assault.
Siddiqui’s September 4 arraignment at Manhattan federal court was delayed after Siddiqui, a practicing Muslim, refused to submit to a strip search, a security procedure requiring inmates to undress and squat in front of guards.
Without the search, she cannot be brought to court.
At a hearing on Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Richard Berman entered the not guilty plea after finding that Siddiqui had refused to attend court to enter a plea herself. Siddiqui’s lawyer, Elizabeth Fink, said she did not object.
Berman also ordered a psychiatric evaluation of Siddiqui, and, depending on its findings, set a tentative trial date of March 9.
On Monday, a U.S. prosecutor asked the judge to order a psychiatric evaluation of Siddiqui to determine if she is fit to stand trial. Its findings will be discussed at a December 17 hearing.
In a letter to Berman, U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia said that there was reason to believe Siddiqui, who has refused to cooperate with prison doctors, is suffering from a mental disease and is unfit to stand trial.
Garcia asked the court to find that “there is a reasonable cause to believe that the defendant may be suffering from a mental disease or defect rendering her incompetent to enter a plea or stand trial.”
Fink asked that her client be placed in a hospital for medical and psychological care and be treated as someone who may have been the victim of torture.
“There is every reason to believe that her mental state is related to five years when she was kept in captivity,” she told Berman.
Human rights groups had declared Siddiqui missing for five years before the incident in July, when she was arrested outside the governor’s office in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province. Her lawyers have said they believe she was secretly detained in Afghanistan’s Bagram air base by U.S. authorities.
U.S. officials say police found documents in her handbag on making explosives, excerpts from the book “Anarchist’s Arsenal” and descriptions of New York City landmarks.
The federal indictment says Siddiqui, while detained for questioning, grabbed a U.S. warrant officer’s rifle and fired it at the interrogation team, which included two FBI agents in the room. The warrant officer then shot her with his pistol.
Prosecutors said Siddiqui had refused care and that strict security was needed given the serious charges against her.
In 2004, the FBI called Siddiqui an “al Qaeda operative and facilitator who posed a clear and present danger to America.” U.S. intelligence says she was married to a nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who helped plan the September 11 attacks.
editing by Christine Kearney and Philip Barbara