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‘Hamid didn’t want to go.’ Lawyers say FBI coerced terror defendant to falsely confess

Umer Hayat speaks outside the federal courthouse in Sacramento in 2007 after his son, Hamid, was sentenced to 24 years in prison on charges of lying to the FBI and one terror count.
Umer Hayat speaks outside the federal courthouse in Sacramento in 2007 after his son, Hamid, was sentenced to 24 years in prison on charges of lying to the FBI and one terror count. Sacramento Bee

Launching an assault on the 2006 terror conviction of Lodi cherry picker Hamid Hayat, defense attorneys began playing video snippets of his recorded FBI interrogation in court Monday in a bid to show that Hayat was led into a false confession that sent him to prison for 24 years.

The video clips show Hayat, then 22, sitting in a windowless room as FBI interrogators make suggestions to him about what his “marching orders” were when he allegedly went to a Pakistani terror training camp in 2003, and suggesting to him how he would be contacted for instructions on launching an attack.

“There’s clearly weapons training, there’s explosives training,” an agent tells Hayat in one of the videos.

Defense attorneys are attempting to show that Hayat’s confession that he attended a terror training camp was the product of fatigue and of FBI agents persuading him to admit to something he didn’t do.

Hayat was convicted in 2006 of lying to the FBI and providing assistance to terror groups, but his attorneys have fought for years to prove he was innocent.

They argue that the camp he allegedly trained at was not even open at the time he was in Pakistan and that agents kept him in a grueling interrogation that began in the morning and went into the early hours of the next day.

Hayat is seen in a windowless room wearing a polo-style shirt at times and covered in a shawl at others. During some of the questioning he yawns and asks when he can go home.

The first witness in the case in federal court in Sacramento, Richard Leo, a professor at the University of San Francisco and a national expert on false confessions, said there are multiple examples of agents providing facts or suggestions to Hayat that could have led to him making a false confession.

Leo did not testify that Hayat’s confession was a false one, but said factors that can lead to a false confession are present at different points of the interrogation, including leading questions and fatigue on the part of the suspect.

At one point, Hayat is seen asking when he can go home, or when he can see his father, Umer, who also was prosecuted.

“There are several portions like this in the transcripts where he expresses a desire to go home and is told he can’t, that the suspect is not allowed to go home until he tells interrogators what they want,” Leo said.

Prosecutors have consistently argued that Hayat confessed to attending a training camp numerous times. They say his appeals have no basis.

Leo conceded under cross examination that the interrogation tactics he described that could lead to false confessions are not illegal.

“They’re not illegal and it’s not a crime to use them,” Leo said.

But U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah Barnes agreed to hold the evidentiary hearing that began Monday to determine whether there were issues with the confession and whether Hayat received an effective defense from his attorney, who had never tried a criminal case before.

Hamid Hayat was represented by Wazhma Mojaddidi, who defense attorneys say was so inexperienced that she allowed Umer Hayat’s lawyer, veteran prosecutor and defense attorney Johnny Griffin to take over the case.

Testimony in the hearing may take up to three weeks, after which Barnes is expected to issue her findings to the trial judge, U.S. District Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr.

Several of Hayat’s family members and friends packed the rear rows of the eighth-floor courtroom Monday morning as defense attorney Dennis Riordan began presenting his case. One Lodi community leader said he was shocked at what he saw on the videos.

“I’m just amazed how the FBI leads the witness in the direction they want to go, putting words in his mouth,” Taj Khan, a Hayat family friend, said during a break in the proceedings. “I’m just flabbergasted.”

Khan said Hayat went through interrogation without a lawyer because “by the time we found out he was already in the interrogation room.”

“It was already too late,” Khan said, adding that he and other community members “just started Googling the names of civil rights attorneys until we found Johnny.”

A key to the defense strategy is to produce witnesses who can testify that Hayat was never out of their sight in Pakistan long enough to actually have visited a terror camp. Hayat’s younger sister testified Monday afternoon that his longest absence from her was for one week, when he went to a wedding in another Pakistani town.

Raheela Hayat recounted how, during two extended family trips to Pakistan from 1997 to 2000 and again from April 2003 until May 2005, she and her brother had an uneventful upbringing, with Hamid Hayat playing cricket, hanging out with friends and going to movies.

“We would watch ‘Tom and Jerry’ at home, we would play card games, we would talk,” Raheela Hayat, who is now 22, testified.

She said her brother helped drop her off at school and picked her up every day, and that during the second trip Hamid Hayat got married in December 2004.

Under questioning from defense attorney Donald Horgan, she broke down as she recalled the family’s May 2005 flight from Pakistan to San Francisco, which was ordered to turn back two hours from SFO and diverted to Tokyo.

“They announced that someone’s on this plane that’s very dangerous,” she said as she began to cry. Once the plane landed in Tokyo, she said, the family was taken one way and other passengers were escorted in another direction.

“When we were going downstairs there were cameras going off and my mom said to smile because we haven’t done anything wrong,” she said.

Hamid Hayat ended up being interrogated at the airport, and the rest of the family later was allowed to fly on to San Francisco, where they were questioned again.

“It was the worst trip of my whole entire life I could ever imagine,” she said. “They were asking me questions – a 10-year-old girl – they were so rude.”

Later, after Hamid Hayat had been allowed to return to Lodi, she recalled two FBI agents visiting the home to speak to her brother and asking him to come to the Sacramento FBI office for more questioning.

“Hamid didn’t want to go, but we told him to go because they’ll clear your record,” she said.

On cross examination by Assistant U.S. Attorney Andre Espinosa, Raheela Hayat defended her ability to remember details of her trips to Pakistan despite her youth. She said she recalled the name of the hospital where her brother was treated for meningitis, and insisted that she was not spinning tales to save her brother.

“I would do anything for my brother except to lie on behalf of him,” she said.

Sam Stanton: 916-321-1091, @StantonSam

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