MIAMI (AP) — An elderly Muslim cleric on trial for allegedly funneling tens of thousands of dollars to the Pakistani Taliban terrorist organization vehemently denied Tuesday any connection to Islamic extremists and insisted he does not harbor anti-U.S. views.
Taking the witness stand in his own defense, 77-year-old Hafiz Khan rejected U.S. government charges that he sent at least $50,000 to the Taliban for use in violent attacks against both U.S. and Pakistani government interests overseas.
"We are innocent of these accusations," said Khan, speaking in Pashto through an interpreter. "We have no connection with them whatsoever. We hate them."
Khan, who became a naturalized U.S. citizen after arriving here in 1994, said he is proud to live in this country, is registered to vote and does not even know how to fire a gun. Frequently stroking his flowing white beard and adjusting his skullcap, the imam of a downtown Miami mosque said he does not own a television and concentrates mainly on Islamic studies and teaching — something he feels utterly free to do in the U.S. because of its guaranteed rights.
"It is really a good thing to be a citizen of the United States," Khan said.
The prosecution's case is built largely on FBI wiretaps and recorded in-person conversations in which Khan is heard apparently praising attacks committed by the Pakistani Taliban, including some in which U.S. personnel were killed. The Taliban is also linked to al-Qaida and to attempted attacks in the U.S., such as the failed 2010 bombing in New York's bustling Times Square.
In some of those calls, Khan appears to be advocating the overthrow of Pakistan's government, such as one in which he says that "God should turn the government upside down and let it be scattered completely."
In testimony Tuesday, Khan said he was angered by the Pakistani army's decision to temporarily shut down a religious school, or madrassa, that he owns in his ancestral Swat Valley. Khan said he was also upset by what he viewed as overly aggressive and violent army actions against dissidents and the poor in their 2009 campaign against the Taliban.
"There was no justice there," he said. "The majority of the victims were innocent people and there was no investigation."
Khan took the stand after his lawyers abandoned an unusual attempt to have defense witnesses testify via video link from Islamabad. The link was shut down last week just a few minutes into the second witness, and U.S. District Judge Robert Scola refused to allow any more delays. Most of the witnesses either could not or would not come to the U.S. to testify.
One witness who did testify said he handled some $30,000 of Khan's transactions in Pakistan, insisting they were for innocent and business purposes not connected to the Taliban.
It was clear Tuesday that Khan sought to focus the jury's attention on the madrassa, which was started in 1967. He said boys and girls were both taught at the school, with many from poor families getting a free education and free room and board.
"It is not our tradition that we take money for teaching religious subjects," Khan said.
Khan was scheduled to continue testifying Tuesday afternoon and could face prosecution cross-examination as early as Wednesday.
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