A Florida jury may soon decide the fate of an elderly Muslim cleric and his son, who are charged with funneling at least $50,000 to the Pakistani Taliban. The terrorist organization has targeted U.S. interests with violence in this country and internationally.
As jury selection began Wednesday, prospective jurors were handed detailed four-page questionnaires to fill out in the case of Hafiz Khan, 77, and his 26-year-old son, Izhar Khan, both of whom served as imams in the Miami area.
Khan and his son have pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy and material support to terrorism. If found guilty, each man could serve up to 15 years in prison. Last year, prosecutors dismissed charges against another son, Irfan Khan, after failing to produce enough hard evidence against him.
U.S. District Judge Robert Scola told prospective jurors the trial could last up to nine weeks, and asked them to pay special attention to the written questions concerning their ability to be fair in a terrorism case.
"If you really have strong feelings that will prevent you from being fair, let us know," Scola said Wednesday. "The issue is not whether you're in favor of terrorism. The issue is, knowing that is the charge, can you be a fair juror?"
The Pakistani Taliban is linked to al-Qaeda and has had a role in several attacks on the U.S., including a December 2009 suicide bombing at a military base in Khost, Afghanistan, that killed seven U.S. citizens, according to prosecutors. The group also had connections with the attempt in May 2010 by Faisal Shahzad to set off a bomb in New York’s Time Square.
Central to the prosecution’s case against the Khans are more than 1,000 phone calls and other communications intercepted by the FBI between 2008 and 2010, which included anti-American rhetoric and strong support for the Taliban.
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."
While in a September 2010 call, according to the FBI, Khan learned that Muslim fighters in Afghanistan had killed U.S. soldiers and "declared his wish that God bring death to 50,000 more.” The defense describes the conversation as little more than a heated political discussion.
Based largely on those calls, prosecutors estimate the Khans wired at least $50,000 to help finance the Pakistani Taliban, monies defense attorneys claim went to family in Pakistan.
In addition to providing financial support, prosecutors also say Hafiz Khan founded a religious school in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. The Taliban used the facility to train and indoctrinate children to fight Americans. The Pakistani army closed the school, known as a madrassa, in 2009.
In an unusual move, the judge agreed to allow five witnesses to be questioned under oath in Pakistan. Defense lawyers will travel there in February to take depositions from the five, which include three others indicted in the U.S. case: Hafiz Khan’s daughter, Amina Khan; her son, Alam Zaleb; and Ali Rehman.
Prosecutors will participate in those depositions from the U.S. via teleconference.