MIAMI – A mysterious outage in transmission of live testimony from Pakistan has temporarily halted the South Florida trial of an elderly Muslim cleric accused of supporting terrorism.
The video feed to a Miami federal courtroom was cut off Tuesday and restoration efforts failed. Neither lawyers for 77-year-old Hafiz Khan nor the U.S. Justice Department could explain what happened Wednesday, but it caused the trial to be delayed until next week. Khan is standing trial in Florida, but some defense witnesses were supposed to testify by video feed from Pakistan.
Khan attorney Khurrum Wahid said he got a call from an unknown number at the Islamabad hotel where the witnesses were appearing in which the caller told him "they would cut off the feed." Wahid said officials at Pakistan's Interior and Foreign Affairs ministries with whom he had been in contact had no knowledge of the outage.
Wahid also said hotel employees told him men who appeared to be police officers were seen taking photos of people inside the building. Local technical staff who had been helping with the live video testimony failed to show up Wednesday, he added.
"They are concerned about their safety at this point," Wahid said.
Khan, imam at a Miami mosque, is charged with funneling at least $50,000 in cash to the Pakistani Taliban, which the U.S. lists as a violent terrorist organization and one that has long battled the Pakistani military. The witnesses in Pakistan were testifying on Khan's behalf, contending that money he sent was for family members and peaceful purposes, such as a religious school he owns in the Swat Valley.
Only one witness gave complete testimony: Ali Rehman, who claimed money Khan sent him was used mainly for family business and personal interests such as investment in a potato chip factory. A second witness, suspected Taliban fighter Noor Mohammed, only got as far as denying the Taliban connection when the feed went dead Tuesday.
Given the Pakistani outage, Wahid asked U.S. District Judge Robert Scola to allow the video testimony to be shifted to a third country, most likely the United Arab Emirates. Most of the 11 defense witnesses in Pakistan have either refused to travel to the U.S. to testify or have been unable to obtain visas in time.
A clearly frustrated Scola gave Wahid and federal prosecutors until Friday to figure out an alternative plan to either use the U.A.E. or have some witnesses travel to the U.S. Jurors were told to return Tuesday.
"One way or the other, that's the last accommodation I'm making," Scola said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney John Shipley, one of four prosecutors on the case, said an FBI attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad was unable to determine the cause of the outage after contacting six Pakistani agencies. Shipley accused Khan's defense team of trying to go "under the radar screen" by failing to obtain written Pakistani permission — as Scola had ordered — for the testimony to take place.
"The defense was trying to see how far along it could go before it was shut down," Shipley said.
Wahid, however, said he did his best to comply and that two Pakistani government agencies and the hotel staff were fully aware of what was taking place.
"We did everything we could possibly do. We did not thumb our nose at the court's order," he said.