FEDERAL COURT

Miami imam testifies that he lied when he professed support for the Taliban

 

In testimony that was at turns deadly serious and comical, a Miami imam accused of aiding terrorists testified Wednesday that he lied about his ostensible support for the Pakistani Taliban because he wanted to obtain $1 million from a purported Taliban sympathizer — who was actually an FBI informant.

Hafiz Khan, 77, the one-time leader of a Miami mosque, said he repeatedly deceived the informant, known as Mahmood Siddiqui, because Siddiqui had promised him the money to help poor victims of war between the Taliban and Pakistan army in the Swat Valley near the Afghanistan border.

Khan, accused of sending money to the U.S.-designated terrorist organization, was unaware that his conversations — in which he wished Americans would die in pursuit of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden — were recorded by the FBI. “What I said was all lies,” Khan testified in Pashto through an interpreter. “It was just because of the money.”

Khan, on trial in federal court since early January, spent a second day on the witness stand on charges of supplying at least $50,000 from 2008-2010 to the Taliban, sworn enemies of the U.S. and Pakistan governments. Khan, charged with four counts of providing material support to a terrorist organization, has maintained that the money he sent from Miami to Pakistan was for his family members, the poor and a religious school, or madrassa, in the Swat Valley — not to arm the Taliban.

“They are totally our enemies,” Khan testified about the Taliban, despite his ardent statements of support in the FBI-recorded phone conversations.

Khan, a naturalized U.S. citizen who came to this country in 1994, sparred during cross-examination with Assistant U.S. Attorney John Shipley, who grew frustrated as the frail yet feisty imam dodged his questions about his true beliefs about terrorism.

At one point, Khan said: “I kindly suggest to you that you go to a hospital. You have a mental problem.” He added that the cross-examination was a waste of time.

“I’ll let the jury make that determination, Mr. Khan,” the prosecutor said.

The 12 jurors tried to stifle their laughter, at which point U.S. District Judge Robert Scola excused them to take a break.

Scola then advised the defendant to bring his testimony down a notch. “You are never going to convince Mr. Shipley to change his mind about you,” the judge told him. “The only chance you have is to convince the jury to believe you.”

Shipley peppered the defendant with questions about his recorded conversations with the FBI informant, in which he praised the attempted 2010 bombing in New York’s Times Square.

“There are many times I am agreeing with him, but that does not mean that I mean it,” Khan testified.

Shipley, however, pointed out that Khan made similar comments in other telephone conversations with friends and relatives that also were intercepted by the FBI. The prosecutor repeatedly tried to compel the defendant to admit that he believes it is justifiable to kill Pakistani police and government officials because they have supposedly committed killings and atrocities themselves. “What you are suggesting is exactly what the Taliban and al-Qaida have suggested for years. And we heard it in this courtroom,” he said.

Khan admitted he made those statements in the recorded conversations, including saying to the FBI informant: “May God give the government to the Taliban.” Khan said he was expressing moral outrage over the Pakistan Army’s killing of women and children in the Swat Valley during its war with the Taliban.

At the same time, he seemed to suggest he endorsed an eye-for-an-eye philosophy. “I did say this, yes. Now I will explain,” he told Shipley. “They killed people by cannon. They were innocent people killed in their homes. ... The entire public said they committed atrocities.”

Khan frequently attacked Shipley’s questions, calling them repetitive and refusing to answer them. He also gave rambling speeches that evaded the prosecutor’s questions, especially toward the end of the day when he spoke nonstop for almost 15 minutes.

Khan’s sons, Irfan and Izhar, were also charged along with him and others in the terrorism indictment returned in 2011. But prosecutors dropped the charges against Irfan without explanation last year, and the judge dismissed the indictment against Izhar, a Broward imam, for lack of evidence during the trial.

Hafiz Khan is likely the final defense witness in the trial, which could wrap up this week. His defense team had planned to call other witnesses to testify via video link from Pakistan, but last week the Internet connection was cut off during testimony of the second witness, a suspected Taliban fighter.

Why the link went dead at an Islamabad hotel where the testimony was being taken remains a mystery.

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