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Imams accused of aiding Pakistani Taliban appear in Florida court

From John Couwels and Ben Smith, CNN
  • The two men -- a father and son -- are denied bond
  • Hafiz Khan pleads not guilty to the charges
  • The co-defendants include three generations of family members
  • Prosecutors allege they tried to hide Taliban contributions

Miami (CNN) -- A judge on Monday denied bond to two Florida imams facing charges of funneling money to the Taliban in Pakistan, siding with prosecutors who said the two men could be a risk to the community.

The imams -- a father and son -- are among a half-dozen co-conspirators who, according to court documents, are accused of sending more than $50,000 to the Taliban.

Hafiz Khan, 72, pleaded not guilty to the charges Monday. His 24-year-old son, Izhar Khan, was given an additional week to enter a plea in the case after only recently retaining a permanent attorney.

In denying the men bond, Magistrate Judge Barry Garber ruled that they pose a risk to the community and would be a flight risk, saying prosecutors' evidence showed that Hafiz Khan has a history of obtaining false travel documents.

Five of the defendants in the alleged plot are Khan family members. They include Hafiz Khan's daughter, Amina Khan, and grandson, Alam Zeb, both of whom were arrested in Pakistan with another man, Ali Rehman, for allegedly helping supply money to the Taliban to buy weapons and explosives.

Another son of Hafiz Khan, Irfan Khan, was arrested in Los Angeles. On Thursday, a California federal judge denied bond for him and ordered him transferred to Florida to await trial with his alleged accomplices.

The indictment refers to 15 conversations between various defendants as well as unindicted co-conspirators that took place between April 2008 and September 2010. That includes an alleged February 2010 conversation between Hafiz Khan and an unnamed individual in Pakistan who warned Khan about the dangers of talking about the Taliban over the telephone.

The indictment also cites other discussions during which the defendants called for toppling the Pakistani government and assassinating the country's president, as well as how to send money to the Taliban without getting caught.

The four-count indictment charges the six defendants of conspiracy to murder, maim and kidnap people overseas, and conspiring to provide material support to the Pakistani Taliban. The defendants are also accused of conspiring to provide safe havens to Taliban members.

The elder Khan is painted as the alleged leader of the group in the indictment.

In court Monday, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Shipley described Hafiz Khan's telephone conversations that, Shipley said, were recorded by the FBI through wiretaps and a confidential source.

In one conversation, Hafiz Khan referred to attacks on American soldiers that left seven Americans dead, and Khan said, "may God kill 50,000 more," according to Shipley.

Hafiz Khan got very upset and began speaking loudly in his native language while Shipley was presenting evidence. Khan's court-appointed interpreter tried to calm him down by making hand motions to lower his voice.

His son and co-defendant Izhar Khan had his head down in his hand, which his attorney Joseph Rosenbaum later explained was his client praying. "He was very nervous," Rosenbaum said.

The government alleges the elder Khan sent money to a madrassa, or Muslim religious school, in Pakistan where children were radicalized in support of the Taliban.

Rosenbaum and Khurrum Wahid, the attorney for Hafiz Khan, indicated in their questioning of an FBI agent that they would contend the school was for girls aged 8 to 12, that the Taliban does not allow girls to fight and that the school was shut down by the Pakistani government as a safety precaution due to fighting in the area.

The FBI agent, Mike Ferlazzo, also said under questioning by Rosenbaum that he did not know whether money had ended up in the hands of the Taliban. But Ferlazzo quoted Khan as saying in a recorded conversation that money sent to Pakistan was intended for the Taliban.

Rosenbaum later said that evidence against his client "is thin at best," and he emphasized that Izhar Khan had gone to schools in Miami and Buffalo, New York, as part of his American life.

Wahid, representing the elderly Khan, described him as a frail elderly man who led daily prayers at a mosque in Miami.

"We are very concerned about his health. ... Our primary focus is getting him released," said Wahid.

Asad Ba-Yunus with the Islamic Society of North America said little children in the community described the elder imam with a long white beard as the "Muslim Santa Claus."

The federal government's depiction of Hafiz Khan is entirely different. In the indictment, Khan is accused of sending children from the madrassa to be taught how to kill Americans in Afghanistan.

"There are very heavy accusations; they are pretty serious," said Nezar Hamze, executive director of the South Florida office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

"However, we need to be patient and let our justice system work," Hamze said.

Members from both imams' mosques packed the courtroom Monday to show their support.

Wahid said of his client, "A 76-year-old man said a lot of angry stuff on the telephone," in what he thought were private conversations, and the elderly defendant had sent money to his family in Pakistan.

Prosecutor Shipley, meanwhile, said of Hafiz Khan, "All he needed to provide support (to the Taliban) is a telephone."

CNN's John Couwels reported from Miami and journalist Ben Smith from Atlanta.