‘I still think this is a dream’: Hamid Hayat celebrates Eid al-Adha after release from prison

On Sunday morning, thousands of people filed into Jackson Sports Academy in McClellan Park to celebrate Eid al-Adha, the Islamic “Festival of Sacrifice” that marks the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and commemorates personal sacrifice.

This year’s celebration included a special guest.

After leading prayers, Imam Mohamed Abdul-Azeez took to a stage in a corner of the gymnasium to speak to attendees about the political climate surrounding Muslim Americans. Azeez is the founder of the Tarbiya Institute, an Islamic nonprofit organization based in Roseville that hosted the celebration.

“We are businessmen and plumbers, engineers and Uber drivers. We are teachers. We are accountants. We are elected officials. We are public servants,” he said, his voice booming across the room. “You, every single one of you, is the best America has to offer.”

Azeez then lowered his voice. “In post-9/11 hysteria, a young Muslim man from our community was set up and was wrongfully convicted of terrorism,” continued. He was referring to Hamid Hayat, a Lodi native who was imprisoned for the last 14 years but whose conviction was vacated in late July and who was released on Friday.

On Sunday, Hayat made his first public appearance at the Eid al-Adha celebration.

Applause erupted when Hayat walked to the microphone. He opened his mouth, paused and dropped his head. His cousin rushed up to him, holding his left arm, and his sister came to him on the right, wiping tears from his cheeks.

“I’m at a loss for words,” Hayat said. “I’m still in shock. I can’t believe this day came. I still think this is a dream. I wake up, and I still think I’ll be in prison.”

Dennis Rioridan, Hayat’s lead attorney, described what happened: In 2003, Hayat had traveled to Pakistan to seek medical treatment for his mother and to find a wife. While he was in Pakistan, he received calls from someone who, Riordan said, was a U.S. government informant, urging Hayat to get training. Hayat refused, the informant threatened him, and Hayat cut communications with the caller.

When Hayat returned to California in 2006, federal prosecutors accused him of participating in a terrorist camp in Pakistan and taking part in an al-Qaida “sleeper cell” in Lodi. Hayat, who was 22 years old and represented by a rookie attorney at the time, was sentenced to 24 years in prison, for which he served 14 years until his release.

Once Hayat was imprisoned, Riordan took on Hayat’s case. Riordan said that a Pakistani journalist and a Pakistani lawyer helped travel around Pakistan to find witnesses who could provide evidence that Hayat never went to a terrorist camp. The witnesses would teleconference into late night court hearings to testify.

In 2018, federal magistrate judge Deborah Barnes issued a 116-page recommendation to the federal judge overseeing Hayat’s case, arguing that Hayat’s conviction should be vacated because Hayat did not have effective representation that could prove his innocence when he was first convicted.

The federal judge, Garland E. Burrell Jr., found the new testimony from Pakistani witnesses was credible and vacated Hayat’s conviction in late July.

Hayat’s sister, Raheela Hayat, said that when she received a call from Riordan on Friday that her brother was released, she did not tell anyone in the family because she wanted to surprise them. On Saturday morning, she brought her family to the office of the Council of American Islamic Relations, an organization that had been advocating for the release of Hayat.

Her mother “was about to sit down on the chair and right then, Hayat came out of the room,” she said. “They were crying — crying ’cause of joy.”

Azeez of Tarbiya Institute said, “Hamid and many others like him paid the price and they made a sacrifice.”

“Here we are,” he continued. “It’s the great irony that his first public appearance is at the feast of sacrifice, 14 years after he was wrongfully convicted.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee

Elaine Chen, from the University of Chicago, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee. She grew up in the Bay Area and later in Beijing, China.