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Fla. imam gets 25 years prison for Taliban support

Hafiz Muhammed Sher Ali Khan, 76, right, and one of his sons, 24-year-old Izhar Khan, left, are shown in this courtroom drawing made in 2011 in federal court in Miami.
Hafiz Muhammed Sher Ali Khan, 76, right, and one of his sons, 24-year-old Izhar Khan, left, are shown in this courtroom drawing made in 2011 in federal court in Miami.Shirley Henderson / AP file

An elderly Muslim cleric was sentenced Friday to 25 years in prison following his convictions on terrorism support charges for sending tens of thousands of dollars overseas to finance the Pakistani Taliban, which has launched numerous violent attacks against both Pakistan's government and U.S. targets. 

Hafiz Khan, 78, had faced up to 60 years behind bars on four terrorism support-related charges. But U.S. District Judge Robert Scola opted for less than the maximum term, although it is 10 years more than the sentence recommended by federal prosecutors. 

The case against Khan, who was imam at a Miami mosque prior to his 2011 arrest, was built on hundreds of FBI recordings of both telephone calls and Khan's face-to-face conversations with an undercover informant. In the calls, Khan discusses details of numerous wire transfers to Pakistan over a three-year period that totaled about $50,000. 

Khan also was overheard praising deadly attacks by the Taliban in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, including a 2009 bombing at a CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan. In another call, Khan was heard wishing for the deaths of 50,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. 

"May Allah utterly destroy them. The destruction . if they do not repent and do not revert to the right path," Khan said on the FBI recording. 

Scola said several times Friday that the evidence against Khan was strong. 

"I can't think of a case where the evidence would be more overwhelmingly clear," the judge said. 

During trial, Khan testified in his own defense that although he sometimes made strongly worded political statements, the money he sent to Pakistan was for family, friends and charity. In particular, Khan said he sent money to a religious school, or madrassa, that he'd founded in Pakistan's Swat Valley. That school was closed for a time by the Pakistani government, which claimed it was a Taliban hideout and training ground.

Khan also claimed in his testimony that he only pretended to support extremist Taliban views — including toppling Pakistan's government in favor of one that would impose strict Islamic law — in order to obtain $1 million promised him by the man who turned out to be the FBI informant. Prosecutors said that was a complete fabrication. 

"Terrorists need money. What he did was put lives at risk," said Assistant U.S. Attorney John Shipley. "It put Pakistani lives at risk and it put American lives at risk." 

In a lengthy statement to the judge in Pashto through an interpreter, Khan again insisted he was not a terrorism financier and that his sole intent was to help the poor in his native Swat Valley. 

"I did not send one dollar to the terrorists or the fighting Taliban," Khan said. "I am absolutely against the terrorists and the violence." 

Khan's wife, Fatima, appealed to Scola from her wheelchair, also in Pashto, to allow him to come home. She said his rants against Pakistan and the U.S. on the FBI tapes did not mean he was a proponent of violence. 

"He gets angry a lot. He is not speaking from his heart," she said. 

Khan's attorney, Khurrum Wahid, asked for leniency, in part because of Khan's age and ill health but also because he never was implicated in planning for any actual terrorist attack plots. Wahid also said the prosecution acknowledged some of Khan's money did go for good works in Pakistan. 

"We don't know how much money, if any, ever made it anywhere," Wahid said. "From his perspective, he was not supporting terrorism." 

Two of Khan's sons, Izhar and Irfan, were initially charged along with their father but the charges against them were dismissed. Three others in the indictment, including Khan's daughter, remain free in Pakistan, which will not allow them to be extradited to the U.S. 

Scola also refused to order a new trial for Khan. Wahid had claimed, among other things, that ample evidence to warrant a new trial surfaced in an interview the FBI informant gave to The Associated Press after the trial. Scola did not agree.