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Federal judge throws out Taliban terror case against Margate imam

When Izhar Khan was arrested in May 2011 on terrorism charges, the young imam was beloved by the members of his Margate mosque and was engaged to a woman from Pakistan.

He spent the next 20 months in the Miami Federal Detention Center, mostly in solitary confinement, awaiting the start of his trial earlier this month.

On Thursday, a federal judge threw out the U.S. government’s case charging that Khan aided the Pakistani Taliban terrorist organization in a plot with his father, Miami imam Hafiz Khan. But Izhar Khan, 26, says he’s not angry about his ordeal — even though he lost his home, his savings and his very freedom.

“I don’t have words to describe my joy,” Khan said at his defense attorney’s law office in Coconut Grove, hours after he was released from custody. “I just want to let everyone know that I have no bitter feelings against the government.

“They had to do what they had to do for the safety of our community,” he said, but added that he felt the FBI investigation was “sloppy” even if “justice was served” in the end.

U.S. District Judge Robert Scola issued a judgment of acquittal for the Muslim scholar, citing a lack of evidence in the prosecution’s material-support case against him and his father. The case, which drew national media attention, has experienced problems since the indictment was first filed, though it will continue against Khan’s father, the lead defendant on trial.

The judge found that the prosecution, which rested its case Wednesday, failed to prove any wrongdoing by Izhar Khan, imam of Masjid Jamaat Al-Mumineen Mosque off Sample Road. Scola concluded that the government’s allegations were unfounded that Khan knew that two suspicious fund transfers of $300 and $900 were intended for the Pakistani Taliban, a U.S.-designated terrorist group.

“I do not believe in good conscience that I can allow the case to go forward against Izhar Khan,” Scola ruled from the bench, noting in a written ruling that “this court will not allow the sins of the father to be visited upon the son.” The judge also said from the bench that prosecutors nonetheless “proceeded in this case against Izhar Khan in good faith.”

Scola already denied the father’s bid for an acquittal verdict halfway through the trial, on Wednesday. Scola noted Thursday that the government’s case against the 77-year-old imam of the Flagler Mosque is “overwhelming,” so his lawyer will be putting on a defense. The trial is set to resume Tuesday.

After the judge’s acquittal verdict for Izhar Khan, the defendant hugged defense lawyer Joseph Rosenbaum and members of Khan’s mosque shook each other’s hands, quietly celebrating.

Rosenbaum said the acquittal was a victory not only for his client, but also for the entire Muslim community in South Florida. “I think we went a long way with this acquittal to strengthen their feeling that they are part of this community and they should not live in fear,” he said.

Izhar Khan, a U.S. citizen, left Pakistan for South Florida with his family in the 1990s and developed into a beloved Muslim leader with a keen interest in American culture and sports — including becoming a huge fan of the Miami Heat.

“We always thought he was innocent,” said Fazal Deen, secretary of the Margate mosque. “That’s why we were always here for him. The system proved we were correct.”

“We couldn’t wait for this day,” added Zahid Khan, treasurer of the mosque, who is no relation to the Khan family. “We are very thankful to have him back. He is very good for the youth in our community. We are very much a part of our community.”

Both the son and his father were held in the detention center — much of that time in solitary confinement — since their arrests on charges of funneling about $50,000 to the Taliban to target U.S. interests in Pakistan between 2009 and 2010.

The Taliban allegedly used the funds for buying arms and other ammunition to carry our terrorist attacks against the Pakistan government, a U.S. ally, and other American targets.

At trial, both imams countered that their financial support was intended not for terrorists, but for relatives, friends and schoolchildren in Pakistan who have struggled for survival.

Izhar Khan said that he never understood why he was charged in the case, saying he devoted all of his time to the Muslim faith and mosque community, while teaching children and playing sports.

“I don’t even follow current events,” he said at his lawyer’s office. “I don’t know anything about Pakistan. I don’t even know who the president of that country is now. I’ve never heard of these names they were accusing me of”’ helping.

The government’s case was built largely on FBI-recorded phone conversations between father Hafiz Khan and other members of his family and suspected Taliban sympathizers. A confidential informant who infiltrated Khan’s Miami mosque also secretly recorded their conversations. Khan’s bank records have also been central to the government’s case against him.

Four counts alleging conspiracy and material support for a terrorist organization were filed against the father, and three counts against the son. 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. He attended Thursday’s hearing on the acquittal ruling along with another brother, Ikram Khan, who is not charged in the case.

“We very much appreciate the support of the community and want to thank them for their support,” said Irfan Khan, who declined further comment.

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.

Asked if he believed federal prosecutors targeted his whole family, Izhar Khan said yes. Then he redirected the answer to himself, saying he was targeted “pretty much because of the way I look. ... Whatever they did was in good faith, but there was a misunderstanding. It was guilt by association because of the way I look.’’

Khan said he is looking forward to resuming his duties at the Margate mosque, playing basketball with the children and finally getting married.

Khan said he could not comment on his father’s ongoing trial, but held out hope for him. “I am just hoping he will get released soon, and that justice will be served,” he said. “Only time will tell.”

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