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Hafiz Khan, Izhar Khan Terrorism Trial Begins In Miami (PHOTOS)

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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 Monday, May 16, 2011 in federal court in Miami. (AP Photo/Shirley Henderson)
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 Monday, May 16, 2011 in federal court in Miami. (AP Photo/Shirley Henderson)

When the high-profile trial of two South Florida religious leaders accused of sending cash to help the Pakistani Taliban begins Wednesday, their defense is expected to argue they were simply offering charity to family and friends in their troubled homeland.

Izhar Khan, 26, was the young imam at a Margate mosque; his father, Hafiz Khan, 77, led a Miami mosque until they were arrested in May 2011 on federal charges they sent cash to the terrorist organization.

The men, both U.S. citizens born in Pakistan, are charged with funneling $50,000 from South Florida to the Taliban between 2008 and 2010. Prosecutors used more than 1,000 wiretapped phone calls, bank records and a confidential informant to make their case.

The case hinges on whether jurors believe the men conspired to help terrorists who target U.S. and Pakistani interests. The Taliban has been linked to al-Qaida and had a role in the failed attempt to bomb New York's Times Square in May 2010 and other attacks, experts say.

Defense attorneys say the men's motives were misinterpreted and the money was for family members affected by violence in the Swat Valley in northwest Pakistan. The money was also to help a school for boys and girls, established long ago by the elder man in his hometown, the defense said.

Both men pleaded not guilty and have been locked up since their arrests. The trial in federal court in Miami is expected to take several weeks.

Jury selection is expected to take a few days. U.S. District Judge Robert Scola Jr. said dozens of potential jurors will fill out questionnaires before he asks about their attitudes toward Islam, terrorism and other possible biases.

Though Hafiz Khan looks frail and confused and comes to court in a wheelchair the judge ruled he was mentally competent for trial and there was evidence he exaggerated some memory problems. At prosecutors' request, jurors shouldn't see the wheelchair, which federal marshals said is used only for convenience to move him quickly from his cell to court.

Izhar Khan was a popular, soft-spoken leader at Margate's moderate Masjid Jamaat Al-Mumineen mosque off Sample Road, congregation members said.

The young man reserved his fervor for basketball and cricket, supporters said. They said he was known for preaching tolerance of other religions and his in-depth religious knowledge. He lived in the U.S. since age 8, records show.

Prosecutors said their case against the father, Hafiz Khan, who led the Flagler Mosque since the late 1990s, is stronger than against the son. They say the younger imam collected $300 from a U.S. donor for his father and sent $900 to his sister in Pakistan that his father told him was for terrorists.

"We recognize, and have stated candidly from the start, that the quantity of evidence against lzhar is not the same as that against his father. Nonetheless, sufficient evidence exists to convict Izhar," prosecutor John Shipley wrote in court documents.

Prosecutors say the older man left a voicemail for his son in July 2009, saying a donation was "for the mujahedeen" though the defense said there is no proof Izhar Khan heard it because his father called back shortly later.

In an unusual ruling, the judge is allowing defense lawyers to travel to Pakistan during trial to question five witnesses they say are crucial to proving their clients' innocence.

The defense plans to go to Islamabad in February to question five witnesses under oath while the judge and prosecutors remain in Miami and participate via a video teleconference call. The judge ruled it was unsafe for prosecutors to go, but said their participation by video link would ensure a fair trial for both sides.

Potential witnesses include three other defendants in the case, including Hafiz Khan's daughter Amina Khan and her son Alam Zeb, who are free in Pakistan. They risk being deported to face the charges in South Florida if they come to Islamabad to testify, as expected.

pmcmahon@tribune.com, 954-356-4533 or Twitter @SentinelPaula ___

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