Crime - Sacto 911

‘Don’t talk to the FBI, never, ever.’ Lodi man seeks to overturn terrorism conviction

Hamid Hayat attorney Wazhma Mojaddidi speaks outside the federal courthouse while Johnny Griffin III, Umer Hayat’s lawyer, listens.
Hamid Hayat attorney Wazhma Mojaddidi speaks outside the federal courthouse while Johnny Griffin III, Umer Hayat’s lawyer, listens. Sacramento Bee

Hamid Hayat, a cherry picker from Lodi, was packed off to federal prison 12 years ago after being convicted in one of the Sacramento region’s first international terror cases following the 9/11 attacks.

Today, Hayat is 35 and has served half of his 24-year sentence. But his attorneys maintain that he is innocent.

Hayat’s case returns to federal court in Sacramento on Monday for another review of whether he was railroaded by the government prosecutors who also convicted his father, an ice cream vendor.

Hayat was convicted in 2006 of lying to FBI agents and providing support to terrorists. His attorneys argue that much of the evidence used against him was faulty, including prosecution claims that Hayat attended a terror training camp in Balakot, Pakistan, in 2003 and 2004 – a facility they say had been shut down before Hayat even got to Pakistan.

Convicted Lodi terror suspect Hamid Hayat in an undated photo provided by his family. Hayat’s attorneys are returning to federal court in Sacramento arguing that he was wrongly convicted. AP

They also note that his attorney at the time was so inexperienced she had never before handled a criminal case.

“Hamid was innocent of the charges: he never attended a militant training camp in Balakot or anywhere else,” San Francisco attorney Dennis Riordan argued in court papers asking for the evidentiary hearing that begins Monday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah Barnes.

“He had gone to Pakistan in April of 2003 to get married and to help his mother get medical care.”

Federal prosecutors have fought the reopening of the case, arguing that Hayat confessed to the FBI. They have noted that appeals of the conviction have been consistently rejected.

“Hayat repeatedly admitted that he attended a jihadi camp in 2003-2004,” prosecutors wrote in documents last year opposing a new hearing on the conviction. “Hayat told six agents at least six separate times that the camp he attended was in the vicinity of Balakot, in the Northwest Frontier Province.”

Barnes rejected the government’s position and in June ordered an evidentiary hearing into the defense claims, something prosecutors were still arguing about during a December motion hearing until she shut them down.

“I understand very clearly that the government objects to an evidentiary hearing. I get that,” Barnes told them. “I disagree with that position. That ship has sailed.”

Now, the two sides are set to square off over a case that has been controversial since it first broke into public view in June 2005, when officials described breaking up an al-Qaeda terror cell in Lodi.

Federal prosecutors accused Hayat, then 22, of explosives and weapons training that included using photos of President George W. Bush as targets.

Hayat, who was born in San Joaquin County in 1982, was charged along with his father, Umer Hayat, a Lodi ice cream truck driver who was accused of lying to the FBI.

Umer Hayat’s jury could not reach a verdict in the case and he later pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and was sentenced to time served.

Defense witnesses are expected to include Hayat family members and others who will say Hamid Hayat was never away from them long enough to have gone to a terrorist training camp.

Some of that testimony is expected to take place in unusual nighttime court sessions via live videoconferencing with four witnesses in Pakistan. Other defense witnesses will include a false confessions expert who is expected be on the stand while portions of Hamid Hayat’s taped confessions to FBI agents are played.

Umer Hayat told The Bee in 2006 after his plea bargain that neither he nor his son was ever involved in terrorism and that their confessions, taped by the FBI, resulted from exhaustion and leading questions.

“I lost my name, my business, my community and my home for nothing,” he said then. “Don’t talk to the FBI, never, ever. They screwed us very bad. They was telling me, ‘You are helping your son,’ so I was cooperating with them.”

Hamid Hayat has been fighting his sentence since his conviction, asking for a new trial and appealing unsuccessfully to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals

The case began when the FBI sent an undercover operative, Pakistani American Naseem Khan, to Lodi, where Khan claimed he’d seen four of the world’s most wanted terrorists, including Ayman al-Zawahiri, then al-Qaeda’s second in command. Those claims proved to be false. Khan then befriended Hamid Hayat and encouraged him to go to a terrorist training camp while Hayat was in Pakistan for his wedding.

According to court testimony, the Hayats were interviewed twice by the FBI. The first time, they both denied they knew anything about terrorism. But during a second interview at Sacramento FBI headquarters, after many hours of grilling without a lawyer, Hamid Hayat changed his story and confessed he attended a terrorist training camp for about three months. The jury asked for a read-back of FBI Special Agent Harry Sweeney’s trial testimony.

Sweeney testified that Hamid Hayat admitted to going to the camp after Sweeney asked him, “Would there be any reason why we would have a satellite image of you at a camp in 2003?”

Under cross-examination, Sweeney acknowledged there was no such photo.

Monday’s court session marks the beginning of an evidentiary hearing that the defense lawyers hope will result in Barnes forwarding a recommendation to the trial judge, U.S. District Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr., to vacate the conviction and order a new trial.

The likelihood of that seems remote. Burrell issued an order in November 2016 rejecting a defense motion asking that the conviction be vacated because of claims that Hayat did not receive an adequate defense.

Despite that, Hayat’s lawyers hope to show that the government withheld evidence that could have exonerated their clients, and that his trial attorney, Wazhma Mojaddidi, was so inexperienced that she failed to hire an investigator for Hayat.

Riordan, who says Mojaddidi has since become “an experienced and well-respected attorney specializing in immigrations and family,” argues that at the time of trial she never applied for a security clearance that could have allowed her to fight the government’s refusal to turn over some classified information.

He also has blamed her for essentially turning over the defense to the control of Johnny Griffin III, a former federal prosecutor and seasoned defense attorney who “was opposed to conducting any investigation or filing any motions that might interfere with his strategy of forcing the government to trial as quickly as possible.”

Griffin declined to comment last week, but is listed as a possible government witness to be called to discuss his dealings with Mojaddidi.

Court filings say Griffin has previously refused to answer questions in the case, citing attorney-client privilege that Umer Hayat refused to waive. If Griffin is called and won’t answer questions, he is expected to “invoke the attorney-client privilege on the record and refuse to testify,” prosecution filings say.

Mojaddidi, who has become a leader in Sacramento’s Muslim community and served as president of the Sacramento chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, is expected to testify later this week as a defense witness. She said in an interview Thursday that said she still strongly believes that Hamid Hayat is innocent, but denies she was to blame for the guilty verdict.

“Most of the trial was done jointly with Johnny Griffin,” Mojaddidi said. “I was in this case primarily because of my Muslim background and language skills and ability to analyze evidence.

“There was an understanding that Johnny would work with me regarding my lack of criminal experience. I relied on Griffin’s criminal expertise and he relied on my cultural knowledge. The client, the community and Johnny Griffin knew about my inexperience and decided to include me anyway.

“I am confident I competently represented him,” she added. “At the end of the day I think I did the best that I could under the circumstances.”

Riordan said he hopes the new hearing will lead eventually to Hayat being released from prison.

“Our goal is to establish what really went on at trial, and to establish the truth of the fact that he never went to a camp,” Riordan said.

The case continues to reverberate in Lodi’s Pakistani Muslim community, said Taj Khan, a local activist who has followed the case every step of the way.

“An innocent person is languishing in prison for no reason or fault of his own and justice has to prevail somewhere or sometime,” Khan said. “I hope this leads to some kind of justice for Hamid Hayat.”

Hayat’s parents and brother and sister visit him “as much as they can,” Khan said. “We know the family has suffered tremendously. His mother has some serious medical issues. We hope some good news comes out of this process.”

Sam Stanton: 916-321-1091, @StantonSam

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