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Lodi Muslims Stung by Verdict; Some Fear a Youth Backlash

April 27, 2006|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

LODI, Calif. — Grim. Discouraged. Mistrustful. As word spread of local resident Hamid Hayat's conviction, the mood descended over this Central Valley farm town's community of Pakistani Muslims like a sudden afternoon storm.

Although no Al Qaeda cell was revealed in the nine-week terrorism trial, as prosecutors once promised, "Lovable Livable Lodi" -- known for its small-town ambience and emerging Zinfandel wines -- is now officially home to a convicted terrorist and remains the target of an ongoing terror probe.

"It would have been nice to have an acquittal in order to put Lodi back on the map for tourism and wine rather than terrorism," said City Councilman John Beckman, who has worked to build trust between Muslims and city government. "A conviction puts a pretty heavy cloud over the Muslim community here."

For the estimated 2,500 Muslims, the blow stung all the more for being unexpected.

When the jury of Hamid's father, Umer Hayat, "decisively deadlocked" Tuesday, prompting a mistrial, there was cautious elation. Finally, local Muslims hoped, the terrorist brand seared onto their community of field hands, truck drivers and cannery workers would fade.

Many Muslims here -- and a good number of non-Muslims -- thought the government had built a weak case on an unreliable paid informant and questionable interrogation tactics that led a naive man with limited education to confess.

"Everybody I've talked to is very happy," Nick Qayyum, 37, a truck driver who serves as the Lodi Muslim Mosque treasurer, had said Tuesday, adding that he was proud of how the U.S. justice system worked. But two hours later, that opinion was in tatters.

The younger Hayat, convicted of providing "material support" to terrorists by attending a Pakistani training camp and returning intent on jihad, was looking at up to 39 years in a federal prison.

By Wednesday, Qayyum said, mosque elders had shared deep concerns about what would come next. "The U.S. government is trying to win the hearts and minds of people," he said. "Then you have convictions like this."

Elders fear a backlash against the government among their youths. The raw mistrust, they worry, will make it harder to keep them from siding with militants who claim in readily available videotaped messages that they are countering a Western "war on Islam."

"You put it all together and we're confused," Qayyum said. "How are we going to get the kids not to agree with that? It's very unfortunate."

Central to the case was Naseem Khan, who told unsubstantiated -- many say preposterous -- tales of spotting top Al Qaeda officials in Lodi and then pressed Hayat to go to a terrorist training camp in Pakistan.

That -- plus the fact that no evidence corroborated Hayat's confession that he attended a camp in Pakistan -- has left many feeling vulnerable.

"If he can do that to [Hamid Hayat], then who is next?" Qayyum wondered. "You go up to a confused person and start talking about this mumbo jumbo. It's totally wrong. For the government to support this kind of thing is ludicrous."

When the news broke Tuesday, Shah Nawaz and Waqas Khan, both 16, perched on picnic tables in the park across a street from the mosque, staring glumly at the media spectacle. Nawaz said he had no trust in the investigation or the government.

"We feel bad for those guys," he said of the Hayats. "There was no reason they went to jail."

Some Pakistani Muslim teenagers have heard whispered slurs of "terrorist" on the athletic field, their fathers said. Men with full beards have been called "Bin Laden."

Although Nawaz and Khan said they have not personally been insulted, the investigation -- which U.S. Atty. McGregor Scott characterized Tuesday as ongoing -- has cast a cloud of suspicion on everyone.

"It feels bad for us too," Khan said.

On Wednesday, the atmosphere outside the mosque was quiet, with men drifting in and out in prayer, saying little.

Still, the news was hard to ignore, with the headline "Guilty!" splashed across the Lodi News Sentinel in giant bold type.

To some local residents, it was justice well executed.

"I definitely think there's a [terrorist] link here. There's definitely something going on," said Ollie's bar owner George Gladius. "Based on everything I've read, I think they're guilty."

But city leaders pressed for calm -- and perspective.

"Lodi doesn't have a convicted terrorist," City Atty. Steve Schwabauer said. "Lodi has a guy who was convicted of lying and who went to some sort of camp. And the only evidence of that is that he said he did.

"They're clearly sympathizers," he added of the Hayat family, pointing to evidence of anti-American literature found in their home. "But in my view that doesn't make them criminals. That's the great thing about America: You have a right to be an idiot here."

Lodi Police Chief Jerry Adams said Wednesday that he had been in regular briefings with the FBI and was led to believe that even if there was some continuing wrap-up, the Hayats were the central target.

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