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Prosecutors portray South Florida Muslim clerics as terrorist supporters in federal trial

Hafiz Khan, a hunched man with a flowing white beard, was called the “Santa Claus imam” by the youngsters who attended his modest Flagler Mosque in Miami.

But on Friday, a federal prosecutor portrayed the 77-year-old Muslim cleric as an evil man who spewed hateful words about his adopted country and funneled at least $50,000 to support the Pakistani Taliban terrorist organization in violent attacks against U.S. interests overseas.

His goal, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Shipley said in opening statements of Khan’s terrorism trial, was to help arm the Taliban militants with weapons for their mission to topple the Pakistan government and carry out terrorist attacks against the U.S. military abroad.

“This is no man of peace,” Shipley told the 12-person federal jury Friday. “This is not a religious leader that any of you would respect.’’

Khan and his 26-year old son, Izhar Khan, a Muslim scholar who served as imam of a mosque in Margate, are standing trial on charges of conspiracy and providing material support to terrorists. Both imams, who have been detained without bail since their arrests in 2011, say their financial support was intended not for terrorists, but for relatives, friends and school children in Pakistan who have struggled for survival. Each count carries a maximum prison sentence of 15 years.

Charges were dismissed last year against another son, Irfan Khan, because of a lack of evidence. Two other Khan family members charged in the case, Amina Khan, a daughter, and Alam Zeb, her son, are in Pakistan. Another defendant, Ali Rehman, accused of distributing Hafiz Khan’s funds to the Taliban, is also in Pakistan.

The FBI investigation, launched in early 2009, was built on recordings of Hafiz Khan’s phone conversations, a confidential informant who infiltrated Khan’s mosque, and Khan’s bank records in South Florida and Pakistan.

Hafiz Khan’s attorney, Khurrum Wahid, said in opening statements that prosecutors have created a “caricature” of his client, asserting that his words were “hyperbole” and “contrary” to the Taliban’s violent campaign. Wahid said his client was driven by a “love” for the people in the Swat Valley region of Pakistan, near the Afghanistan border, where he was born and raised before becoming a Muslim leader and founder of a madrassa religious school.

“You’re going to hear he loved helping the poor and needy,” Wahid told jurors. “You’re going to hear he’s not pro-Taliban. In fact, it’s quite the contrary. ... You’re going to hearing of no evidence that the money went for guns. ...You’re going to hear it was for the madrassa, the love of his life.”

The younger Khan’s defense lawyer, Joseph Rosenbaum, minced the prosecution’s case against his client, saying that Izhar rarely came up in FBI-recorded phone conversations and was not personally responsible for sending any money to the Taliban.

Rosenbaum said that Izhar never heard a potentially incriminating voice mail message left on his answering machine by his father to pick up $300 from a South Florida donor, that the father said had been “approved for the mujahideen,” or Taliban militants.

“It was impossible for Izhar to hear that voice mail,” Rosenbaum told jurors, noting that the July 11, 2009, message lasted one minute and 58 seconds and that Izhar called his father back 19 seconds after it was left on his answering machine.

“The government has no evidence that Izhar listened to the voice mail message,” the lawyer said. “The government is asking you to assume Izhar heard the voice mail.”

Then Rosenbaum told the jurors that they were the only thing “standing between the government steamrolling someone who is not guilty.”

But Shipley, the prosecutor, while acknowledging the son’s lesser role, sharply disagreed with his defense attorney.

“He undeniably knew of his father’s support,” Shipley said, “yet he agreed to help him anyway. That is a crime.”

Shipley, along with the first witness, FBI special agent Mike Ferlazzo, said the Khans’ alleged conspiracy to aid the Pakistani Taliban was sinister.

Ferlazzo said the Pakistani Taliban was founded in late 2007 as an “umbrella organization of different militant groups” that gained notoriety for murders, beheadings, kidnappings and improvised explosive devices.

The FBI agent noted the Taliban, now designated by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization, is linked to al-Qaida and has played roles in several attacks against Americans, including a December 2009 suicide bombing at a military base in Khost, Afghanistan, that killed seven U.S. citizens. The group also was connected to the attempt in May 2010 by Faisal Shahzad to detonate a bomb in New York’s Times Square.

Central to the prosecution’s case against the Khans are more than 1,000 phone calls and other communications intercepted by the FBI from 2009 to 2010. Based in large part on those calls, prosecutors say the Khans wired at least $50,000 to help finance the Pakistani Taliban’s acquisition of guns and ammunition.

In addition, Shipley, the prosecutor, said Hafiz Khan’s Swat Valley religious school, which he had founded in the 1970s, was used by the Taliban to train and indoctrinate children in fighting Americans. The madrassa was shut down in 2009 by the Pakistani army.

Court documents also show that the recorded conversations contained anti-American rhetoric and strong support for the Taliban, mainly on the part of the older Khan.

In July 2009, for example, the FBI said Khan “cursed the leaders and army of Pakistan, and called for the death of Pakistan’s president and for blood to be shed in violent revolution.”