MIAMI – An elderly Muslim cleric charged with supporting Pakistani terrorists will plead not guilty and should not be prejudged simply because of the seriousness of the case, his defense attorney said Monday.
"We only have the government's side. He intends to challenge it," said Khurrum Wahid, attorney for 76-year-old Hafiz Muhammad Sher Ali Khan. "I'd ask the public to keep an open mind. I have no question that through this process we're going to vindicate Mr. Khan."
Khan, imam at the Miami Mosque, and his son Izhar Khan, 24, appeared in federal court for the first time since their arrests on charges of conspiracy and providing material support to terrorists. They are among six people who allegedly worked to funnel at least $50,000 to the Pakistani Taliban, which violently opposes Pakistan's government and the U.S., prosecutors said.
Hafiz Khan, with a long, white beard and thick, black-framed glasses, appeared frail as he slowly trudged in handcuffs and chains to the court podium. Khan suffers from a heart condition and other ailments, and will not do well in strict solitary confinement at a downtown Miami detention center, his attorney said. He also speaks very little English, mainly Urdu and Pashto.
"We're very concerned about his health," Wahid said.
The younger Khan, also an imam at a mosque in suburban Margate, was given a week to hire a lawyer after a judge decided he didn't qualify for a public defender. A hearing was set for May 23 on whether either man will be released on bail. The U.S. wants them kept in custody until trial because they are a danger to the community and a flight risk, prosecutor John Shipley said.
Another son, 37-year-old Irfan Khan, was arrested in Los Angeles and was scheduled to appear in court there later Monday. He will eventually be transferred to Miami to stand trial. The three other people indicted in the case, including two other Khan relatives, are believed to be in Pakistan.
Each of the four terrorism support charges against the suspects carries a maximum 15-year prison sentence, according to prosecutors.
The Pakistani Taliban is linked to al-Qaida and has played roles in several attacks against the U.S., including a December 2009 suicide bombing at a military base in Khost, Afghanistan, that killed seven U.S. citizens, prosecutors said. The group was also connected to the attempt in May 2010 by Faisal Shahzad to detonate a bomb in New York's bustling Times Square.
Prosecutors said the investigation began after suspicious financial activity involving the Khans was first uncovered in 2008.
Much of the case rests on a series of telephone conversations recorded by the FBI. According to the indictment, there were numerous discussions about how to send money undetected to the Pakistani Taliban for weapons and other needs — and other calls advocating violence against Pakistan and its allies, especially the U.S.
On July 21, 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."
In another call Sept. 22, 2010, according to the FBI, Khan learned that Muslim fighters in Afghanistan had killed seven U.S. soldiers and "declared his wish that God bring death to 50,000 more."
Khan was also warned in February 2010 about what he was saying on the telephone, according to the indictment. He was asking about the Pakistani Taliban and Muslim fighters, "only to be reminded that he should not discuss such matters over the phone or else the Taliban would be doomed."
The indictment claims Hafiz Khan owns a religious school, or madrassa, in northwest Pakistan that has sheltered Pakistani Taliban members and "sent children from his madrassa to learn to kill Americans in Afghanistan."
Family and mosque members have cast doubt on prosecutor's case, contending Khan and his sons are peaceful Muslims and have never been known to praise violence or terrorism.
"I'm surprised, just like everyone who knows him," said Nezar Hamze, executive director of the South Florida office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "They're pious, very upright people. Supporting terrorism has nothing to do with Islam. Right now, we're dealing with speculation."
Curt Anderson is on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/Miamicurt
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