Crime

Miami judge orders prison release of ailing Muslim cleric convicted of supporting Taliban

Miami Imam Hafiz Khan testifies at his 2013 terrorism trial.
Miami Imam Hafiz Khan testifies at his 2013 terrorism trial. Miami Herald Archive

UPDATE: Hafiz Khan, the former imam of the Flager Mosque in Miami, died Tuesday at a Raleigh, N.C., hospice after a federal judge ordered his release from prison last Friday.

Despite opposition from the U.S. government, a federal judge ordered the release Friday of former Miami imam Hafiz Khan, ruling that because the convicted Taliban supporter is dying at a North Carolina prison facility, he no longer poses a terrorism threat and can be transferred to a hospice care center.

U.S. District Judge Robert Scola granted the “compassionate release” request made by the 84-year-old Muslim cleric’s three sons and the Miami Federal Public Defender’s Office under a new law known as the First Step Act.

“I do find that his demise is imminent, and he can no longer speak and does not pose a danger to the community,” Scola said Friday, after holding three hearings this week on the Khan family’s petition.

Federal prison officials informed the three sons that their ailing father had fallen unresponsive and been placed on palliative care. Earlier this month, the sons visited their father in North Carolina’s Butner Correctional Complex, where Khan served a little more than eight years of his 25-year sentence on terrorist conspiracy charges.

The leader of the Flagler Mosque had been convicted of sending around $50,000 a decade ago to support the Taliban in Pakistan — an offense that the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami said was so serious he should not qualify for compassionate release. Prosecutors said Friday they objected to the judge’s entire order and would consider an appeal.

“There are a lot of reasons in his record to have pause” about his release from prison, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Shipley told the judge.

Earlier this week, a prison doctor testified that Khan has a host of dire health issues and could die within weeks. But he also said he may be too weak to be moved from the prison medical facility, let alone to Miami. Scola, the judge, raised concerns about the logistics of transferring Khan because of his fragile state.

The family, with the help of Federal Public Defender Michael Caruso and colleague Sowmya Bharathi, found a solution that satisfied the judge’s concern: a hospice center in Raleigh that could accommodate Khan on Friday.

“No one wants him released without proper medical care available,” Bharathi said, adding that Khan’s family had the finances to pay for his ambulance transfer to the Raleigh facility and the daily hospice care.

The judge said that because of Khan’s rapidly deteriorating health and inability to speak, he believed the defendant would be unable to spread any possible propaganda to incite the Taliban to take violent action against Americans — evidence that surfaced during his 2013 terrorism trial in Miami.

“Mr. Khan’s danger was his ability to speak and influence other people,” said Scola, who in his order prohibited Khan from any access to a telephone, computer or the internet. He also limited his visitors at the Raleigh hospice facility to immediate family members.

Until Congress passed the First Step Act less than a year ago, only the Director of the Bureau of Prisons could file a motion for compassionate release for inmates. Under the new law, the families of inmates could file the motion directly after exhausting administrative options in the prison. In August, Khan himself had already asked the prison warden to request compassionate release on his behalf but had not received a response.

Bharathi, representing Khan’s family, asked the judge to consider the spirit of the new law. “Nobody is asking the court to have sympathy for Khan’s actions,” she said. “We are asking the court to exercise compassion — relieving someone from suffering.”

Shipley, however, countered that Congress had never said inmates would no longer pass away in prison. Khan had been 77 at the time of sentencing, making it all but inevitable he would die there.

Khan lied on the witness stand and never expressed any remorse for sending money to the Taliban to kill Americans, Shipley said. That hardly qualified him to receive compassion from the court.

“This is not a man asking to go peacefully, reconciling with his crimes,” Shipley said.

At the 2013 trial, prosecutors played phone conversations in which Khan told an FBI informant that he wanted Americans to die, while also praising Taliban strikes against the Pakistani and U.S. governments. The informant, who wore a wire, had promised to donate $1 million to help innocent civilians in the war-stricken Swat Valley. Khan testified that his anti-American comments were made simply to ingratiate himself with the potential donor and were taken out of context.

Khan testified that he had actually delivered the money to help relatives and the poor struggling to get by under the violent conflict between the Pakistani army and the Taliban. He said the money also went to support a religious school, or madrass, that he had founded in Pakistan’s Swat Valley region, close to the Afghanistan border.

Two of Khan’s sons were initially charged along with him. Prosecutors dropped the conspiracy indictment against one son, a cab driver, before trial, and the judge acquitted the other, a Broward County imam, halfway through the proceeding for lack of evidence.

At Khan’s compassionate release hearing, the assistant public defender said that the First Step Act compels courts to reconsider the status quo of letting inmates die alone in prison rather than in the company of family.

“It’s a step that Congress is urging us to take,“ Bharathi said. “We should change the way we do this and consider releasing people at the end of their life.”

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