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Conviction for Son, Mistrial for Father in Lodi Terror Case

Times Staff Writers

A federal jury Tuesday convicted a 23-year-old Lodi man of attending a terrorist training camp in Pakistan and returning to the United States to commit violent jihad against his fellow citizens.

Hamid Hayat, a Pakistani American born in Stockton, was found guilty of one count of providing material support for terrorism and three counts of lying to the FBI. He faces up to 39 years in prison at a sentencing hearing set for July 14.

The case turned largely on a confession that Hayat later contested and on conversations secretly taped by a paid FBI informant whose credibility came under repeated assault in the trial.

Earlier Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Garland E. Burrell declared a mistrial in the companion case against Hamid’s father, Umer, 48, when the jury announced that it was “decisively deadlocked.” Umer Hayat, also a U.S. citizen, was charged with two counts of lying to the FBI about his son’s attendance at the camp in late 2003 and about his own knowledge of such camps.

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The younger Hayat’s conviction comes as the federal government has had a mixed record of prosecuting suspected terrorists under the formerly obscure “material support” statute.

U.S. Atty. McGregor Scott predicted that the successful prosecution would boost the war on terrorism, providing a deterrent effect.

“We have demonstrated that we’re willing to spend a lot of time and resources to prevent our citizens from being killed,” Scott said at a news conference, adding that he hopes would-be terrorists will now “think twice.”

Scott said the investigation into potential terrorism links in Lodi continues.

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“Certainly there are people of interest; that’s all I’m going to say,” he added.

Although Hamid Hayat’s conviction was a clear victory for the prosecution, the facts in the nine-week trial of the Lodi father and son never matched the government’s repeated claims that it had discovered an active Al Qaeda terrorist cell embedded in California’s agricultural heartland, 35 miles south of Sacramento.

On Tuesday afternoon, the federal courtroom was crowded and tense when the jury of six men and six women presented Burrell with its unanimous verdict on the charges against Hayat.

A thin, frail man in an ill-fitting black suit, Hayat listened to the proceedings through an Urdu interpreter, showing no reaction when the string of guilty verdicts was announced. His attorney, Wazhma Mojaddidi, an Afghan American trying her first criminal case, slumped forward in her seat and briefly put her head in her arms.

Mojaddidi said later that she would seek a new trial. “Hamid Hayat never attended a terrorist training camp,” she said. “The fight is definitely not over.”

U.S. Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales hailed the conviction.

“In this particular case,” he said, “justice has been served against a man who supported and trained with our terrorist enemies in his goal of violent jihad.”

Jurors in the Hamid Hayat case were hustled out of the building by federal marshals and were not immediately available for comment.

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Their decision appears to have been influenced by the testimony of FBI Agent Harry J. Sweeney. It was Sweeney, a 21-year veteran of the bureau, who first got Hamid Hayat to say he attended a training camp near Balakot in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province by suggesting that the FBI had satellite photographs of Hayat at the camp. Under cross-examination, Sweeney admitted that the FBI had no such photographs.

Before making its decision Tuesday, the Hamid Hayat jury asked to hear Sweeney’s testimony read back to the panel in open court.

While that jury continued to deliberate, the panel in Umer Hayat’s case announced that it was at an impasse.

Johnny L. Griffin, who represents the father, urged the government not to seek a retrial of the ice cream truck driver, saying the jury was “evenly split.”

Scott, saying the jury tilted 7 to 5 in favor of conviction, said he is still considering whether to retry the elder Hayat. A bail hearing was set for Friday.

Outside the courthouse, Hayat’s 17-year-old son, Arslan, asked that his father be set free.

“He wasn’t guilty, like I told you guys. The jury couldn’t find him guilty. We want him home,” he said. His mother, Oma, and sister Reheela, 11, stood silently behind him.

Since the father and son were arrested in June, federal officials have repeatedly characterized the case as evidence of a terrorist network in California.

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The nation’s top intelligence official, John D. Negroponte, recently testified before the U.S. Senate that Lodi had a “home-grown jihadist cell.”

But the issues before the two juries, drawn from the politically conservative Eastern District of California, were much more limited. Jurors were asked to determine if the younger Hayat attended the camp in Pakistan and returned to the United States intent on committing jihad, and if both Hayats initially lied to FBI agents.

The more dramatic allegations never surfaced.

The two imams at the Lodi mosque identified as the main targets in the four-year undercover investigation of the city’s Pakistani American community were never charged with crimes.

The most revealing aspect of the Hayat trial was the light it shined on the FBI recruitment and use of Muslim undercover agents in its counter-terrorism efforts since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Central to the case was a Pakistani immigrant and former Lodi resident whom the FBI recruited in Bend, Ore., where he was working as a convenience store clerk. The informant, Naseem Khan, 32, got the FBI’s attention a month after the terrorist attacks when he told agents he saw Osama bin Laden’s top deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, worshiping and lecturing at the small mosque in Lodi, where Khan lived in 1998 and 1999.

In three later interviews, Khan said he saw two other terrorists -- wanted in connection with the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania -- frequenting the mosque.

FBI agents said they quickly dismissed the claimed sightings as highly unlikely. Most terrorism experts and federal officials do not think that Zawahiri ventured outside Afghanistan or Pakistan after 1995.

But despite concluding that the claims were unreliable, the FBI in November 2001 hired Khan -- who speaks Urdu and Pashto, two of Pakistan’s languages -- to infiltrate Lodi’s large Muslim community.

During the three years leading to the arrest of the Hayats, Khan was paid nearly $230,000 in salary and expenses.

Defense attorneys Griffin and Mojadiddi relentlessly attacked Khan’s credibility in his multiple appearances on the stand. The approach eventually forced prosecutors to admit to the jury that they had no evidence Zawahiri had ever been in Lodi.

The prosecution, meanwhile, leaned heavily on the confessions of the two Hayats obtained after hours of interrogation at Sacramento FBI headquarters and on satellite photographs of a location in Pakistan that matched one of the varying descriptions of the camp that Hamid Hayat said he attended.

When the Lodi case broke last June, government officials initially said they had uncovered a full-blown terrorist cell.

Keith Slotter, then-head of the FBI’s Sacramento office, said that “various individuals connected to Al Qaeda have been operating in the Lodi area in various capacities, including individuals who have received terrorist training abroad with the specific intent to initiate a terrorist attack in the United States.”

An early U.S. Justice Department affidavit, later withdrawn, implied that the arrest of the Hayats was just the beginning, saying that “other individuals in the Lodi community” had been programmed in Pakistani camps to attack hospitals and food stores.

Television crews swarmed into the somnolent Central Valley town, best known for its zinfandel grapes.

With the Hamid Hayat verdict Tuesday, they were back.

As evening prayers ended at the mosque, a yellow house across the street from a park, half a dozen television trucks were parked outside.

Most worshipers who emerged from the mosque looked grim and declined to comment. A small circle of men sat on benches near the door. Among them was the acting president, Mohammad Gul, who said he has known the Hayats for years.

“I’m surprised. I’m surprised. But we can do nothing,” he said. “This was the way the case went. The jurors say what is right or wrong.”

Taj Khan, who sat through parts of the trial and has acted as a spokesman of sorts for some of Lodi’s Muslims, said the community “believes that both father and son are innocent. They somehow have become victims of their own stupidity and the FBI’s process. We are surprised that they were not acquitted.”

Councilman John Beckman, who was mayor last year, said he had spoken to some of the city’s Muslims. “What was conveyed to me,” he said, “was a sense of sadness, a sense of grief.”

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Times staff writer Lee Romney in Lodi contributed to this report.


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