For two months, federal prosecutors portrayed Miami imam Hafiz Khan in the worst possible light: terrorist sympathizer, Taliban supporter and pathological liar.
“His whole defense is a lie,” Assistant U.S. Attorney John Shipley told 12 jurors Tuesday during closing arguments.
The 77-year-old Khan, with his hunched shoulders and flowing white beard, testified that he sent about $50,000 to Pakistan to help a religious school, the poor and his extended family overseas — not to arm Taliban militants bent on killing Americans and Pakistanis.
“This is America, folks,” his attorney, Khurrum Wahid, said during closings. “You don’t have to accept what the government tells you.”
On Tuesday, jurors began deliberating the fate of Khan, the former Muslim cleric at the Flagler Mosque in Miami. Khan, who was arrested along other family members in May 2011, has stood trial on 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.
Each count — built upon evidence of FBI-recorded phone conversations, a wired informant and bank transactions between 2008 and 2010 — carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.
The prosecution’s case has had its share of setbacks. U.S. District Judge Robert Scola found the evidence against Khan appeared “overwhelming” when he rejected the defendant’s bid for an acquittal at the end of trial. But the judge had also 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.
Moreover, last summer prosecutors dropped the charges against another of Khan’s sons, Irfan, a Miami cab driver, without explanation.
Both brothers, along with another sibling, Ikram Khan, also a cab driver, attended the closing arguments Tuesday with other supporters from the elderly imam’s mosque.
The case ultimately may come down to whether jurors believed Hafiz Khan, who was often evasive, unresponsive and rambling on the witness stand during four days of testimony last week.
Khan testified 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 — to help innocent victims of war in the Swat Valley region of Pakistan near the Afghanistan border.
Khan, who was unaware his conversations were being recorded, said he wished Americans would die in pursuit of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and that terrorists would destroy the Pakistan government. He was also recorded praising the 2010 Taliban-linked Times Square bombing attempt in New York City.
But on the witness stand, Khan testified his recorded statements were “all lies,” meant to curry favor with the FBI informant, known as Mahmood Siddiqui, who was paid $126,000 by the federal government for his undercover work in South Florida and Pakistan. Siddiqui had promised Khan the money to help poor victims of the war between the Taliban and Pakistan.
“There are many times I am agreeing with him, but that does not mean that I mean it,” Khan testified.
However, Shipley pointed out that Khan made similar comments to friends and relatives in other telephone conversations that also were intercepted by the FBI.
Khan, a naturalized U.S. citizen who came to this country in 1994, sparred during cross-examination with Shipley, who grew frustrated as the frail yet feisty imam dodged his questions about his true beliefs about terrorism.
On Tuesday, Shipley called the defendant’s testimony that he was “lying” to the FBI informant “an absurd story.”
“The only thing truthful that came out of that testimony is that Hafiz Khan is a liar,” the prosecutor said.
Shipley’s colleague, prosecutor Sivashree Sundaram, said during closing arguments that the case was “straight forward.”
“This defendant convicted himself with his own words and actions,” Sundaram told jurors. “These are not the words of a peace-loving man.”
The defendant’s attorney, 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.
He said his client expressed “anti-Taliban” rhetoric when that group was killing innocent people in Swat Valley, and “anti-government” opinions when the Pakistan army committed the same atrocities.
Prosecutors “want you to take all of these words — words — and say that’s enough to convict him,” Wahid said.