MIAMI (AP) — Witnesses will testify live from Pakistan via video beamed to a federal courtroom as part of the defense case in the trial of a Muslim cleric accused of financially supporting the Pakistani Taliban.
U.S. District Judge Robert Scola approved the unusual testimony in the case of 77-year-old imam Hafiz Khan. The first five witnesses will be questioned beginning Feb. 11 at an Islamabad hotel, and jurors will watch on courtroom TV screens. Scola said Tuesday the arrangement is costing taxpayers about $130,000.
Khan is on trial for allegedly funneling at least $50,000 to the Pakistani Taliban, listed by the U.S. as a terrorist group linked to al-Qaida. Khan insists the money was for innocent purposes, and the Pakistani witnesses are expected to back that up. If convicted, Khan faces up to 15 years in prison on each of four counts.
At a hearing Tuesday, Khan attorney Khurrum Wahid asked Scola to allow six additional witnesses to testify from Pakistan, over prosecutors' objections. The judge did not immediately rule but seemed inclined to approve the request, noting that an appeals court might toss out any convictions if the trial appears unfair to Khan.
"I don't want to have a second trial. I want to have one fair trial," Scola said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Pat Sullivan said the second batch of witnesses is likely to simply repeat testimony of the original five and is unnecessary.
"They're all testifying to the same points," Sullivan said.
Wahid, however, said the witnesses will discuss details such as the operation of Khan's religious school in Pakistan, known as a madrassa, and how Khan sent money to victims of violence between the Taliban and Pakistan's army during fighting in 2009 over control of the Swat Valley. Many of these witnesses are heard on phone conversations intercepted by the FBI.
For example, Wahid said Khan business partner Sardar Ali will testify that money Khan sent to him did not go to the Taliban.
"His testimony is directly relevant to Mr. Khan's defense of having provided funds to the poor, to orphans, and to those injured due to being victims of war or flood," the attorney said.
Four of the witnesses that will begin testifying on Feb. 11 are alleged by prosecutors to be Taliban members or sympathizers, including Khan's daughter Amina Khan. She and two of the others are charged in the same U.S. case as their father, but Pakistan has refused to arrest them, federal prosecutors say.
"We have no information that's going to happen," Sullivan said.
Earlier, prosecutors dropped charges against one of Khan's sons, and Scola earlier this month dismissed the case against a second son because of insufficient evidence. Trial of the elder Khan is expected to last through most of February.
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