Miami-Dade County

Miami imam faces potential life sentence for terrorism convictions in federal court

Hafiz Khan, with his flowing white beard, used to be called the “Santa Claus imam” by the youngsters who attended his modest Flagler Mosque in Miami.

But that was before his arrest and trial on charges of financially supporting a foreign enemy of the United States: the Pakistani Taliban.

Now the 78-year-old Muslim leader faces the bleak prospect of dying in prison. On Friday, a federal judge could sentence him to as many as 60 years in prison after a Miami jury convicted him on four terrorism offenses in March.

Khan’s punishment, before U.S. District Judge Robert Scola, could be especially harsh because of “enhancements” in the sentencing guidelines for terrorism and obstruction of justice. Federal prosecutors accused him of lying repeatedly while testifying on the witness stand for four days.

Without the obstruction enhancement, Khan’s sentencing guidelines would fall between 14 and 17 years.

“Merely because the jury chose not to believe some or all of Mr. Khan’s testimony is not enough to show that Mr. Khan willfully gave perjured testimony,” wrote his defense attorney, Khurrum Wahid, in an objection to the confidential pre-sentence investigation report by the federal probation office.

Scola will have final say about his punishment. The judge had said during the two-month trial outside the presence of the jurors that the prosecution’s evidence against the imam was “overwhelming.”

Khan, who has been held at the Miami Federal Detention Center since his arrest in May 2011, 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.

Khan was convicted of plotting 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.

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 who were 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 wished that a Taliban-linked bomb plot in New York’s Times Square had succeeded.

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 anti-Pakistan comments to the informant only to curry favor with him to obtain the money — not because he truly believed what he was saying.

“Other than the statements to the government informant, there was no evidence Mr. Khan made any materially false statements,” his attorney, Wahid, wrote in court papers filed this month.

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.

“As was made clear during the trial, these statements were made in frustration usually as reactions to information of horrors and violence falling upon his [Swat Valley] village by the Pakistani Army,” Wahid wrote in court papers. “There is no evidence to support any plot or plan to exact violence against any specific person.’’

Khan and two other members of his family were arrested with much fanfare, but the prosecution’s case had its share of setbacks.

Scola, the judge, 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, without explanation, prosecutors dropped the charges against another son, Irfan Khan, a Miami cab driver.