RAWALPINDI, Pakistan – A white-bearded cleric, tutor to hundreds of Islamic students at a Pakistani seminary near the capital, on Tuesday branded FBI allegations that his 22-year-old grandson received jihadist training while attending the school a "pack of lies."
Qari Saeed-ur Rehman (search), leader of the Jamia Islamia madrassah in Rawalpindi (search), said his grandson Hamid Hayat and son-in-law Umer Hayat, 47, were wrongfully arrested in California last week, and he dismissed suggestions they were linked to an al-Qaida cell.
"Hamid Hayat never received religious education at my madrassah. There is no terrorist camp here. We reject such FBI allegations," Rehman, a supporter of Afghanistan's former Taliban (search) regime, told The Associated Press in an interview at the school, which lies inside a grand mosque in a teeming commercial district of the city -- also home to the headquarters of Pakistan's army.
"All allegations leveled against them by the FBI are a pack of lies," he said.
An FBI spokeswoman in Sacramento, Calif., said the agency stood by the allegations it made in court documents.
"Time will tell what we come up with," spokeswoman Marcie Soligo said. "That's his opinion and that's fine. We stick by what was in the affidavit."
She said the agency's investigation was still under way.
Hamid Hayat's attorney, Wazhma Mojaddidi, said the AP interview "really goes to confirm what we've been saying" -- that her client never attended a terrorist camp.
The Hayats are being held without bond on charges of lying to federal investigators after what the FBI said was a yearslong investigation into possible connections between some Muslim residents of Lodi, about 30 miles south of Sacramento, and Osama bin Laden's terror network.
Authorities say Hamid Hayat, a U.S. citizen, traveled repeatedly to Pakistan where he "learned to kill Americans" while attending a terrorist camp for six months in 2003 and 2004.
According to an FBI affidavit, Umer Hayat said his son was drawn to jihadist training camps in his early teenage years while attending the madrassah. An early version of the FBI affidavit alleged that Hamid Hayat attended a training camp called Tamal, also supposedly near Rawalpindi -- although no such place exists on the map.
Mojaddidi said she is looking into whether Hamid Hayat should have been provided an interpreter during his FBI interrogation, and whether "coercion or pressure was involved" in obtaining his stated confession.
Pakistan, a key ally in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, denies there are any terror camps in the country. Officials say that existing al-Qaida militant bases along the border with Afghanistan were smashed in Pakistani army operations in 2004.
Rehman said during the 1980s, the seminary sent students to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan -- a struggle coordinated by Pakistan's intelligence agencies, with support and funding from the CIA. But the cleric denied producing jihadists today.
"A number of students from the madrassah went to Afghanistan to fight against Soviet troops, and at the time the Americans were providing funds to mujahideen (holy warriors). Pakistan's government was encouraging students to go there."
"It is a part of history and who can deny it?" he said. "We are not doing it now because it is not the policy of government."
Rehman said his daughter is married to Umer Hayat, and that Hamid Hayat is his grandson. He said both men had visited his seminary but neither had studied there.
Rehman's son, Attiqur Rehman, who also is a cleric at the Jamia Islamia madrassah, said Hamid Hayat lived at a village near Islamabad from April 2003 until May 27 this year, and got married in 2004.
He said Hamid went to the United States last month to arrange for his wife to emigrate there with him.
He claimed that Hamid had suffered from a bout of meningitis and was "not a mentally composed person."
"This innocent man never talked about jihadi groups," Attiqur Rehman said, adding that he thought the Hayats had been arrested on wrong information given to the FBI by some opponents of the men living in California.
His claim follows reports that the arrest of the Hayats has strained relations between many of the Pakistani residents of Lodi, with moderate and fundamentalist Muslim factions in the community accusing each other of contacting the FBI.
The madrassah near Rawalpindi, about eight miles from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, currently has 550 students from across the country. Minutes after his interview, the chief cleric Rehman joined them in midday prayers in the mosque.
Rehman has been an active participant in anti-U.S. rallies periodically held in Pakistan in recent years, since a U.S.-led coalition ousted the Taliban regime from power in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America.
He was part of a 10-member delegation of Pakistani clerics who met with Taliban chief Mullah Omar in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, trying -- and failing -- to persuade him to turn over Osama bin Laden.
Meanwhile Tuesday, Lodi Police Chief Jerry Adams said the FBI appears to be scaling back the number of interviews it is conducting in the city. He made the statement after meeting with U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott and the FBI's chief agent, Keith Slotter.
"They're looking at a very small group of people," Adams said.