A federal judge Thursday threw out the terrorism charges against a young Muslim cleric from Broward County in a trial where he and his father, an imam in Miami, are accused of providing financial support to the Pakistani Taliban terrorist organization.
Izhar Khan, imam of a mosque in Margate, became a free man after U.S. District Judge Robert Scola issued a judgment of acquittal for the 26-year-old Muslim scholar. The case against his father will continue.
The judge found that the prosecution, which rested its case Wednesday in the material support trial, failed to mount sufficient evidence of wrongdoing against Izhar Khan, imam of Masjid Jamaat Al-Mumineen mosque off Sample Road. Scola concluded that the government’s allegations were unfounded that Izar Khan knew 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 Hafiz Khan’s bid for an acquittal verdict halfway through the trial Wednesday. Scola ruled 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.
After the judge’s acquittal verdict for Izhar Khan, the defendant hugged defense lawyer Joseph Rosenbaum and members of his Margate mosque shook each other’s hands, quietly celebrating.
“He is the baby of the [Khan] family,” Rosenbaum said, standing outside the courtroom with fellow defense attorney Marshall Dore Louis and members of Khan’s mosque. “I never saw the evidence against him. He was always innocent.”
“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 have been held in the Miami federal detention center since their arrest in May 2011 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, which is a U.S. ally.
The government’s case has been built largely on FBI-recorded phone conversations between Hafiz Khan and other members of his family and suspected Taliban sympathizers. His bank records have also been central to the government’s case against him.
Both imams countered their financial support was intended not for terrorists, but for relatives, friends and schoolchildren in Pakistan who have struggled for survival. 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.
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.
The FBI investigation, launched in early 2009, was built on recordings of Hafiz Khan’s phone conversations, a confidential informant who infiltrated Khan’s mosque, and Khan’s bank records in South Florida and Pakistan.
Hafiz Khan’s attorney, Khurrum Wahid, said in opening statements in early January that prosecutors have created a “caricature” of his client, asserting that his words were “hyperbole” and “contrary” to the Taliban’s violent campaign. Wahid said his client was driven by a “love” for the people in the Swat Valley region of Pakistan, near the Afghanistan border, where he was born and raised before becoming a Muslim leader and founder of a madrassa religious school.
The younger Khan’s defense lawyer, Rosenbaum, minced the prosecution’s case against his client, saying that Izhar rarely came up in FBI-recorded phone conversations and was not personally responsible for sending any money to the Taliban.
Rosenbaum said that Izhar Khan never heard a potentially incriminating voice mail message left on his answering machine by his father to pick up $300 from a South Florida donor, which the father said had been "approved for the mujahideen, " or Taliban militants.
“It was impossible for Izhar to hear that voice mail,” Rosenbaum told jurors, noting that the July 11, 2009, message lasted one minute and 58 seconds and that Izhar called his father back 19 seconds after it was left on his answering machine.
“The government has no evidence that Izhar listened to the voice mail message,” the lawyer said. “The government is asking you to assume Izhar heard the voice mail.”
Judge Scola agreed with Rosenbaum’s argument in his written ruling issued Thursday.
But John Shipley, the prosecutor, while acknowledging the son’s lesser role, sharply disagreed with the defense attorney during opening statements.
“He undeniably knew of his father’s support,” Shipley said, “yet he agreed to help him anyway. That is a crime.”
Shipley, along with the first witness, FBI special agent Mike Ferlazzo, said the Khans’ alleged conspiracy to aid the Pakistani Taliban was sinister.
Ferlazzo said the Pakistani Taliban was founded in late 2007 as an “umbrella organization of different militant groups” that gained notoriety for murders, beheadings, kidnappings and improvised explosive devices.
The FBI agent noted the Taliban, now designated by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization, is linked to al-Qaida and has played roles in several attacks against Americans, including a December 2009 suicide bombing at a military base in Khost, Afghanistan, that killed seven U.S. citizens. The group also was connected to the attempt in May 2010 by Faisal Shahzad to detonate a bomb in New York’s Times Square.
Central to the prosecution’s case against the Khans are more than 1,000 phone calls and other communications intercepted by the FBI from 2009 to 2010. Based in large part on those calls, prosecutors say the Khans wired at least $50,000 to help finance the Pakistani Taliban’s acquisition of guns and ammunition.
In addition, Shipley, the prosecutor, said Hafiz Khan’s Swat Valley religious school, which he had founded in the 1970s, was used by the Taliban to train and indoctrinate children in fighting Americans. The madrassa was shut down in 2009 by the Pakistani army.
Court documents also show that the recorded conversations contained anti-American rhetoric and strong support for the Taliban, mainly on the part of the older Khan.
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. ”