March 4, 2013

Miami imam convicted of Taliban-related terrorism charges in federal court

Federal jurors deliberated for almost a week before convicting a former Muslim leader in Miami of terrorism charges for financially supporting the Pakistani Taliban.

Hafiz Khan, the former Muslim leader of a Miami mosque, showed no emotion Monday when 12 federal jurors delivered guilty verdicts on four terrorism charges that could send the elderly imam to prison for the rest of his life.

His demeanor was subdued, the opposite of his four days of feisty testimony during his two-month trial.

The jury, which had deliberated for almost a week, convicted the 77-year-old cleric of four conspiracy and material-support offenses involving his financial aid to the Pakistani Taliban, an enemy of the U.S. and Pakistan government since 9/11.

Afterward, jurors said outside the courthouse that they did not want to talk about the highly sensitive case, which pitted the U.S. attorney’s office and FBI against the one-time Flagler Mosque imam and his defense team.

Khan, who faces up to 15 years in prison, was convicted of a plot to send about $50,000 to the Pakistani Taliban to help arm its violent mission against U.S. interests overseas between 2008 and 2010. The prosecution did not need to prove that the Taliban actually received any of that money to finance its violent activities — only that Khan’s phone conversations recorded by the FBI showed he wanted some of the funds to go to the U.S.-designated terrorist organization.

The imam’s defense lawyer expressed disappointment after the verdict.

“I feel for my client,” Khurrum Wahid told The Miami Herald. “He really believes he didn’t do anything wrong. I believe he didn’t do anything wrong.”

“They never proved that $1 went to the Taliban; they said his words supported the Taliban,” Wahid added, saying his client’s First Amendment right to free speech was criminalized by the prosecution. “They took his [recorded] statements and said to the jury that they can assume a crime’’ was committed.

Toward the end of the trial, the imam testified that he sent the money to support his religious school, or madrassa, in the Swat Valley area of Pakistan, near the Afghanistan border, and to help his relatives and poor people caught in the crossfire of the war between the Pakistan army and Taliban.

But he was also quoted in phone conversations praising the Taliban’s militant actions against the Pakistan and U.S. governments. And, he said that he wished Americans would die in pursuit of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, and that a Taliban-linked bomb plot in New York’s Times Square had succeeded.

It was unclear whether the jurors, who began their deliberations last Tuesday, were divided before reaching their unanimous verdicts. Evidence in the case included the defendant’s bank transactions, as well as voluminous FBI-recorded phone conversations he had with a government informant who posed as a Taliban sympathizer.

The informant, known as Mahmood Siddiqui, who also wore a wire, engaged Khan by promising him $1 million to help innocent victims of the war in the Swat Valley. The imam testified that he made anti-American and -Pakistan comments to the informant only to curry favor with him to obtain the money — not because he truly believed what he was saying.

Khan, who is being held at the Miami Federal Detention Center, was found guilty of four counts of conspiring to provide material support to terrorists and to a foreign terrorist organization, as well as providing actual support in both conspiracies. His sentencing is set for May 30 before U.S. District Judge Robert Scola, who had said during the trial outside the presence of the jurors that the prosecution’s evidence against the imam was “overwhelming.”

“Despite being an imam, or spiritual leader, Hafiz Khan was by no means a man of peace,” U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said after the verdict. “But for law enforcement intervention, [Khan] would have continued to transfer funds to Pakistan to finance the Pakistani Taliban.’’

Khan’s defense was hamstrung in part because his lawyer could not call a full lineup of about 10 witnesses in Pakistan, who were going to testify via video link to the Miami federal courtroom. The Internet connection at an Islamabad hotel was mysteriously cut off while a suspected Taliban fighter was testifying on Khan’s behalf that the witness was not a member of the Taliban.

That is likely to be the basis of Khan’s appeal, said Wahid, who was assisted in the case by his partner, Carmen Vizcaino.

That factor, coupled with Khan’s often rambling testimony in Pashto through an interpreter and his failure to grasp certain evidence, hurt his defense, according to one relative interviewed outside the courtroom after the verdict.

“I wish he didn’t have dementia so he could have explained himself better,” said Khan’s son, Irfan Khan, who had been charged along with his father but whose case was dropped by prosecutors before trial. “I wish he could have spoken English better so he could have explained himself better.”

He added: “He was the only chance [to defend himself] because the Pakistani witnesses could not testify.”

At trial and during closing arguments, prosecutors portrayed Khan in the worst possible light: terrorist sympathizer, Taliban supporter and pathological liar.

“His whole defense is a lie,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney John Shipley, who was assisted by fellow prosecutors Pat Sullivan and Sivashree Sundaram.

But Khan’s defense attorney argued that his client’s intentions were good. Wahid said prosecutors selected a couple of hundred snippets from some 35,000 recorded phone conversations to depict Khan as a terrorist sympathizer by presenting them “out of context” to the jury.

Khan and two other members of his family were arrested in May 2011 to much fanfare. But the prosecution’s case had its share of setbacks. Scola ruled midway through the trial that the government’s case against Khan’s son, Izhar Khan, a Broward imam, lacked evidence and threw it out. And prosecutors dropped the charges against Irfan Khan, a Miami cab driver, without explanation.

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