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Nation roundup for February 20

Fla. imam takes stand, denies Taliban connection

MIAMI (AP) — An elderly Muslim cleric on trial for allegedly funneling tens of thousands of dollars to the Pakistani Taliban terrorist organization vehemently denied Tuesday any connection to Islamic extremists and insisted he does not harbor anti-U.S. views.

Taking the witness stand in his own defense, 77-year-old Hafiz Khan rejected U.S. government charges that he sent at least $50,000 to the Taliban for use in violent attacks against both U.S. and Pakistani government interests overseas.

“We are innocent of these accusations,” said Khan, speaking in Pashto through an interpreter. “We have no connection with them whatsoever. We hate them.”

Khan, who became a naturalized U.S. citizen after arriving here in 1994, said he is proud to live in this country, is registered to vote and does not even know how to fire a gun. Frequently stroking his flowing white beard and adjusting his skullcap, the imam of a downtown Miami mosque said he does not own a television and concentrates mainly on Islamic studies and teaching — something he feels utterly free to do in the U.S. because of its guaranteed rights.

“It is really a good thing to be a citizen of the United States,” Khan said.

The prosecution’s case is built largely on FBI wiretaps and recorded in-person conversations in which Khan is heard apparently praising attacks committed by the Pakistani Taliban, including some in which U.S. personnel were killed. The Taliban is also linked to al-Qaida and to attempted attacks in the U.S., such as the failed 2010 bombing in New York’s bustling Times Square.

In some of those calls, Khan appears to be advocating the overthrow of Pakistan’s government, such as one in which he says that “God should turn the government upside down and let it be scattered completely.”

In testimony Tuesday, Khan said he was angered by the Pakistani army’s decision to temporarily shut down a religious school, or madrassa, that he owns in his ancestral Swat Valley. Khan said he was also upset by what he viewed as overly aggressive and violent army actions against dissidents and the poor in their 2009 campaign against the Taliban.

“There was no justice there,” he said. “The majority of the victims were innocent people and there was no investigation.”

Khan took the stand after his lawyers abandoned an unusual attempt to have defense witnesses testify via video link from Islamabad. The link was shut down last week just a few minutes into the second witness, and U.S. District Judge Robert Scola refused to allow any more delays. Most of the witnesses either could not or would not come to the U.S. to testify.

One witness who did testify said he handled some $30,000 of Khan’s transactions in Pakistan, insisting they were for innocent and business purposes not connected to the Taliban.

It was clear Tuesday that Khan sought to focus the jury’s attention on the madrassa, which was started in 1967. He said boys and girls were both taught at the school, with many from poor families getting a free education and free room and board.

“It is not our tradition that we take money for teaching religious subjects,” Khan said.

Khan was scheduled to continue testifying Tuesday afternoon and could face prosecution cross-examination as early as Wednesday.

NASA regains space station contact after outage

WASHINGTON (AP) — The International Space Station regained contact with NASA controllers in Houston after nearly three hours of accidental quiet, the space agency says.

Officials say the six crew members and station are fine and had no problem during the brief outage.

NASA spokesman Josh Byerly said something went wrong around 9:45 a.m. EST Tuesday during a computer software update on the station. The outpost abruptly lost all communication, voice and command from Houston.

Communication was restored less than three hours later, Byerly said

“We’ve got our command and control back,” he said.

Station commander Kevin Ford was able to briefly radio Moscow while the station was flying over Russia.

Normally, NASA communicates with and sends commands to the station from Houston, via three communications satellites that transmit voice, video and data. Such interruptions have happened a few times in the past, the space agency said.

If there is no crisis going on, losing communication with the ground “is not a terrible thing,” said former astronaut Jerry Linenger, who was on the Russian space station Mir during a dangerous fire in 1997. “You feel pretty confident up there that you can handle it. You’re flying the spacecraft.”

Not only should this boost the confidence of the station crew, it’s good training for any eventual mission to Mars because there will be times when communications is down or difficult during the much farther voyage, Linenger said.

In the past few weeks the space station had been purposely simulating communications delays and downtimes to see how activity could work for a future Mars mission, Byerly said. This was not part of those tests, but may prove useful, he said.

Defense seeking new murder trial for Drew Peterson

CHICAGO (AP) — Drew Peterson’s defense lawyers called an ethics teacher and even trial spectator to the stand during an offbeat hearing Tuesday as they sought to persuade a judge to grant the former suburban Chicago police officer a new murder trial.

The spectacle was in many ways a continuation of public feud between Peterson’s current legal team and his former lead attorney. The current lawyers claim former lead trial counsel Joel Brodsky botched the 2012 trial at which Peterson was found guilty of killing his third wife.

If Will County Judge Edward Burmila rejects the motion for a retrial, he has said he would move on to Peterson’s sentencing.

Peterson, 59, faces a maximum 60-year prison term for murdering Kathleen Savio, who was found dead in her bathtub with a gash on her head. As a convicted felon, he had to enter court Tuesday in blue prison garb and shackles — a stark contrast from the business suits the then-suspect was allowed to don for his trial.

Among those the defense called to the stand was a law school teacher who testified that Brodsky had violated ethical norms by allegedly signing a contract to split future book and movie proceeds with Peterson years before the case even went to trial.

“It seems that this is over the line,” Clifford Scott-Rudnick, a professor at Chicago’s John Marshall Law School told the judge.

Cutting business deals with clients, he said, raises the danger that lawyers will act in their own business interest rather than in their client’s legal interest.

The bitter acrimony between a former and a current attorney is the latest twist in the peculiar saga of the former Bolingbrook police sergeant, who gained notoriety after his much younger fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, vanished in 2007.

The feud escalated earlier this month when Brodsky filed a defamation lawsuit against colleague-turned-nemesis Steve Greenberg, which claims Greenberg became “irrationally fixated and obsessed with destroying Brodsky” and held Brodsky up to “great public scorn, hatred, contempt (and) ridicule.”

In an open letter to Brodsky in September, Greenberg accused him of “single-handedly” losing the trial, adding he “wafted the greatest case by ignorance, obduracy and ineptitude.”

As Tuesday’s hearing began, Burmila said he was obliged to ask Peterson directly if he had full confidence in the current attorneys sitting next him, including Greenberg.

“Yes, your honor,” Peterson promptly replied.

Apparently satisfied with that answer, Burmila said proceedings could continue with Greenberg acting as Peterson’s lead attorney.

The dispute is in sharp contrast to the beginning of Peterson’s 2012 trial, the limelight-seeking defense team faced the media horde together. Several times, they joked that Stacy Peterson — who authorities presume is dead but whose body was never found — could show up any day to take the stand.

Among the accusations against Brodsky, chief is that he was so bent on publicizing himself that he pressed Peterson into a damaging pretrial media blitz.

One decision that backfired at trial was calling divorce lawyer Harry Smith to be a witness for the defense. Greenberg says that was Brodsky’s decision; Brodsky says all the defense lawyers agreed on it.

Under questioning by Brodsky, Smith told jurors Stacy Peterson had asked him a question before she vanished: Could she squeeze more money out of her husband in divorce proceedings if she threatened to tell police that he murdered Savio three years earlier?

Brodsky hoped Smith’s testimony that Stacy Peterson allegedly sought to extort her husband would dent the credibility of statements she made to others that Drew Peterson threatened to kill her.

Savio’s death was initially deemed an accident, a freak slip in the tub. But after Stacy Peterson vanished, Savio’s body was re-examined and her death was reclassified as a homicide.

During Smith’s testimony, Brodsky repeatedly stressed how Stacy Peterson seemed to sincerely believe her husband had killed Savio. Some jurors later said that Smith’s testimony persuaded them to convict Drew Peterson.


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