Clearing Hamid Hayat

Inexperienced defense attorney was too green to argue that her client was coerced into confessing to FBI. Now Hayat and his family wait to hear if he’ll be retried or released from federal custody.

Raheela Hayat gets emotional in front of reporters in downtown Sacramento.

Raheela Hayat gets emotional in front of reporters in downtown Sacramento.

Image courtesy of CAIR Sacramento Valley

A large gathering of Lodi’s Muslim community stood on the steps of Sacramento’s federal courthouse last week, some stoic and others fighting tears as it was announced that a terrorism conviction against one of their own had been vacated after 13 years.

The reason: Hamid Hayat’s original defense attorneys had failed to introduce key evidence to support his claim of innocence.

That was the finding of federal Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr., who recently heard testimony that the international headlines flashing around Hayat’s arrest in 2005 were based on more prosecutorial hype than real substance.

The FBI originally claimed that a group of men, including Hayat and his father, were operating an al-Qaeda recruitment center out of Lodi. The agents’ initial tip reportedly came from an unreliable and inconsistent teenage source within the West Coast Muslim community.

Ultimately, only Hayat was convicted of a crime. He was found guilty of one count of providing material support to terrorists. Federal prosecutors alleged this support came via Hayat attending an al-Qaeda training camp in Pakistan in 2003 and then lying about it to authorities. At the time, some cable news programs portrayed Hayat’s arrest as a major example of the FBI rooting out a “sleeper cell” in California.

A jury convicted Hayat based mainly on his confession. But his current legal team steadfastly argued that Hayat, then 23, was pressured into confessing after relentless interrogation. Furthermore, they have presented Burrell and other federal magistrates with testimony from multiple witnesses they claim proves that Hayat never attended a terrorist operation while visiting family members in Pakistan.

Hayat’s original defense attorney has also been faulted by legal observers for not calling an expert witness on false confessions.

Burrell, a senior judge for the Eastern District of California, officially vacated Hayat’s conviction on July 30. Representatives for U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott have said their office is reviewing the judge’s ruling. Scott’s options are to retry Hayat, or sign off on his release from a federal prison in Phoenix.

At the downtown press conference last week, one of Hayat’s attorneys, Layli Shirani, said she’s hopeful the federal prosecutor will consent to releasing her client for good.

“We’re here today to turn the page,” Shirani said.

Basim Elkarra, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Sacramento Valley chapter, said Muslims from across the region were also ready to turn the page.

“This case affected the Hayat family, the Lodi community, the Stockton community and a young generation of Muslim-Americans who saw one of their own convicted in a post-9/11 world while completely innocent,” Elkarra said. “This case traumatized so many.”

Speaking to reporters, Raheela Hayat broke down when asked about her older brother’s experience.

“No one can ever pay back the 14 years of his innocence,” she said through sobs.

Turning her message directly to the U.S. attorney, Raheela added, “Please end this now and release my brother. … We don’t need anything else. We just need my brother back home with us.”