Jury selection began Wednesday for the trial of an elderly Muslim cleric and his son on charges they funneled tens of thousands of dollars to the Pakistani Taliban terrorist organization, which has targeted U.S. interests with violence in this country and overseas.
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. The elder Khan was imam at a Miami mosque, and his son held the same post at a mosque in suburban Margate.
Both have pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy and material support to terrorism. Each count carries a maximum prison sentence of 15 years. Charges were dismissed last year against another son, Irfan Khan, against whom prosecutors had far less evidence.
U.S. District Judge Robert Scola said the trial could last up to nine weeks. He told jurors to pay particular attention to the written questions about their ability to be fair in a terrorism case, which can stoke strong emotions because of U.S. involvement in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and the 9/11 terror attacks.
"If you really have strong feelings that will prevent you from being fair, let us know," Scola told potential jurors 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-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 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 2008 to 2010. Based in large part on those calls, prosecutors say the Khans wired at least $50,000 to help finance the Pakistani Taliban.
In addition, prosecutors say Hafiz Khan founded a religious school, known as a madrassa, in Pakistan's Swat Valley that 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 calls contain 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."
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."
Defense attorneys contend that those sorts of comments amount to little more than a heated political discussion and do not equal support for terrorism. They also say the money wired to Pakistan was for family members, not to buy weapons for terrorists, and that the school was not a terrorist training center.
In an unusual move, Scola 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 other people 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.
Follow Curt Anderson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/Miamicurt