The court fight over Hamid Hayat’s terror conviction is evolving into a reminder of the challenges Muslim Americans faced after the Sept. 11 attacks and the creation of the government’s secret “no-fly list.”
For the second consecutive day Tuesday, a witness from Lodi’s Muslim American community broke down on the witness stand in federal court while recalling how authorities blocked him from returning home to the United States.
Jaber Ismail, a Lodi native and close friend and relative of Hayat’s, testified that as a young man he spent time in Pakistan from 2001 to 2006 studying and memorizing the Quran out of devotion to his mother.
Ismail, 30, was called to bolster the contention by Hayat defense lawyers that Hayat, who was found guilty in 2006 of lying to the FBI and of providing support to terrorism, was wrongly convicted.
Hayat’s lawyers maintain that while their client was in Pakistan from 2003 to 2004 arranging for his marriage, he was never out of sight of friends or family long enough to have gone to a terror training camp, as the government charges.
Ismail testified that he saw his friend virtually every day, and watched movies with him, played PlayStation games and gossiped about potential brides. Hayat was never gone more long enough to have traveled to a camp for training, Ismail said.
“That’s not possible at all,” he testified.
The government has rejected defense claims, noting that Hayat confessed to FBI agents repeatedly about attending a camp. The hearing in Sacramento federal court, which may last two more weeks, is part of Hayat’s defense effort to have his conviction vacated.
Ismail recounted how his association with Hayat later caused him serious difficulties when Ismail and his family tried to return home on April 21, 2006.
The family was stopped inside the airport in Hong Kong where they were changing planes, and authorities refused to issue him or his father a boarding pass, he said.
“I was just in shock, because I was born here,” Ismail testified. “Watching my mom cry, they just told us to stand in a circle, pointed guns at our entire family.”
Ismail and his father eventually were told to return to Pakistan, where he said he avoided some friends.
“We were just ashamed, you know, because the country that I loved just abandoned us,” he said.
Ismail said he visited the American embassy in Islamabad to find out why he was not being allowed back into his home country.
“They were like, ‘You’re on the no-fly list,’ ” he said. “I was like, ‘Why? What did I do?’ ”
Ismail said he was questioned at the embassy by two FBI agents asking why he was in Pakistan and what he had done there, and telling him he could not return to the United States.
“They were basically just threatening me,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Why not? I was born here.’
“I was just broken.”
Ismail and his father were able to return in October 2006 and learned that part of his difficulties stemmed from the fact that he had listed his uncle as an emergency contact on his passport application.
His uncle was Umer Hayat, Hamid Hayat’s father, and by then both men were the subject of a federal prosecution in which authorities charged Hamid Hayat had been trained in a terror camp in Pakistan to kill Americans.
Hamid Hayat was convicted in the case and is now halfway through his 24-year prison sentence. His father, who took a plea deal after his jury could not reach a verdict, was sentenced to time served and may be called to testify by prosecutors.
Ismail’s testimony followed an appearance Monday by Hayat’s younger sister, Raheela, who wept on the stand as she recalled her family being pulled off a San Francisco-bound flight in Tokyo, where FBI agents questioned Hamid Hayat.
Hayat family members and representatives from Lodi’s Pakistani community are attending the court sessions, where Hayat’s lawyers also hope to show that he did not receive a fair trial because of his first attorney.
That lawyer, Wazhma Mojaddidi, had never tried a criminal case before and did not attempt to obtain a security clearance that would have allowed her to review the classified material the government was using in its case against Hayat. She is expected to testify later this week.
In testimony Tuesday morning, attorney John Cline, who has extensive experience in cases involving classified materials, said that trying the case without a security clearance “is essentially flying blind.”
Cline, who worked on cases involving former national security aide Oliver North and former Dick Cheney aide Scooter Libby, said that even if there wasn’t time to get a clearance the defense could have brought in a lawyer who already had a security clearance.
“If you did not have a security clearance, what would you do?” Hayat attorney Martha Boersch asked him.
“I’d get one,” Cline said.