South Florida

Sons of ailing Miami imam linked to Taliban seek his ‘compassionate release’ from prison

Miami Herald Archive

Federal prison officials informed the three sons of former Miami imam Hafiz Khan that their ailing father had fallen unresponsive and been placed on palliative care. He could die imminently, they were told.

Two days later, in early October, the sons visited their father in North Carolina’s Butner Correctional Complex, where Khan has served a little more than eight years of his 25-year sentence on terrorist conspiracy charges. The leader of the Flagler Mosque had been convicted of sending around $50,000 a decade ago to support the Taliban in Pakistan.

Hoping to allow Khan, 84, to die at home surrounded by family, the sons rushed to file a motion for his “compassionate release” heard in Miami federal court Tuesday.

A prison doctor testified that Khan has a host of serious health issues and could die within weeks. But, he may be too weak to be moved from the prison medical facility, let alone to Miami.

While U.S. District Judge Robert Scola expressed a willingness to grant the family’s motion, he delayed his decision till Thursday to give the sons more time to resolve the challenging logistics.

“We have to be better than terrorists and people that support terrorists,” Scola said. “I am inclined to grant the request, but there has to be some meaningful way for the family to be with him in his last moments.”

Until Congress passed the First Step Act less than a year ago, only the Director of the Bureau of Prisons could file a motion for compassionate release for inmates. Under the new law, the families of inmates could file the motion directly after exhausting administrative options in the prison. In August, Khan himself had already asked the prison warden to request compassionate release on his behalf but had not received a response.

Assistant federal public defender Sowmya Bharathi, representing Khan’s family, asked the judge to consider the spirit of the new law.

“Nobody is asking the court to have sympathy for Khan’s actions,” Bharathi said. “We are asking the court to exercise compassion — relieving someone from suffering.”

Assistant U.S. attorney John Shipley countered that Congress had never said inmates would no longer pass away in prison. Khan had been 77 at the time of sentencing, making it all but inevitable he would die there.

Khan lied on the witness stand and never expressed any remorse for sending money to the Taliban to kill Americans, Shipley said. That hardly qualified him to receive compassion from the court.

“This is not a man asking to go peacefully, reconciling with his crimes,” Shipley said.

At the 2013 trial, prosecutors played phone conversations in which Khan told an FBI informant that he wanted Americans to die, while also praising Taliban strikes against the Pakistani and U.S. governments. The informant, who wore a wire, had promised to donate $1 million to help innocent civilians in the war-stricken Swat Valley. Khan testified that his anti-American comments were made simply to ingratiate himself with the potential donor and were taken out of context.

Khan testified that he had actually delivered the money to help relatives and the poor struggling to get by under the violent conflict between the Pakistani army and the Taliban. He said the money also went to support a religious school, or madrass, that he had founded in Pakistan’s Swat Valley region, close to the Afghanistan border.

Two of Khan’s sons were initially charged along with him. Prosecutors dropped the conspiracy indictment against one son, a cab driver, before trial, and the judge acquitted the other, a Broward County imam, halfway through the proceeding for lack of evidence.

All three of Khan’s sons attended Tuesday’s hearing and declined to comment afterward.

At the hearing, the assistant public defender said that the First Step Act compels courts to reconsider the status quo of letting inmates die alone in prison rather than in the company of family.

“It’s a step that Congress is urging us to take,“ Bharathi said. “We should change the way we do this and consider releasing people at the end of their life.”