Volume 79, Number 18 | Oct 7 - 13, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Queens imam loves America, says radical rights attorney Kuby

By Mary Reinholz

Only a few weeks ago, left-leaning criminal defense lawyer Ron Kuby knew little about a popular 37-year-old Queens imam who worked at a funeral home serving the Muslim bereaved.

But the imam, an Afghan immigrant named Ahmad Wais Afzali who also acted as an unpaid police source or “community liaison,” apparently knew of Kuby, once a junior partner of the late civil liberties icon William Kunstler in Greenwich Villager and a longtime radio show host.

Afzali called Kuby Sept. 19, claiming the authorities were now giving him grief after he had contacted, at their request, a man who formerly operated a food cart on Stone St. near Ground Zero. The man, an Afghan Muslim named Najibullah Zazi, 24, had moved to the Denver area last year but returned to Queens in a rental car around Sept. 9 or 10.

Zazi, who once attended Afzali’s mosque, was now a central figure in an alleged terror plot that stretched from Pakistan to Colorado and reportedly included plans to detonate homemade bombs in New York City on the anniversary of 9/11.

During the fast-moving terror probe by intelligence agencies, the imam was believed to have warned Zazi that the police were looking for him, according to recorded conversations later cited in a criminal complaint.

The ponytailed Kuby spoke about the case in an interview over the weekend at his W. 23rd St. law office, near the co-op where he lives with his wife and daughter. Since the 1980s, Kuby had lived in both the East Village and West Village, but recently he and his wife decided the West Village had gotten too expensive, and moved to Chelsea just two weeks ago.

“They had searched [the imam’s] home twice,” Kuby said. He noted police first approached Afzali on Sept. 10, showing him photos of suspects — including Zazi, whom he identified. 

“They wanted a DNA sample and a shoe print,” Kuby said. “He provided all these things. But the more he was cooperating, the more they seemed to be treating him aggressively and disrespectfully. He got tired of being treated like this, and he had no idea why.”

During the early-morning hours of Sept. 20, Kuby got another call from Afzali, saying police were knocking at his door.

“I don’t know who the arresting officers were but they were shouting, ‘Police! Open up!’”Kuby recalled. “They broke the lock on the outer door and [the imam] opened the next door. I asked him to put one of the officers on the line but they declined to speak to me. They put him in handcuffs and took him away. That was his big arrest on a Sunday morning.” 

Afzali, 37, had been arrested on charges that he had lied to authorities during the ongoing terror investigation. He was brought to the Metropolitan Correctional Center Downtown. At first, federal prosecutors sought to detain Afzali without bail, claiming he was a flight risk, Kuby said, adding he requested two days to go through evidence and then proceed with a Sept. 24 detention hearing in Brooklyn Federal Court. 

By then, prosecutors had agreed to Afzali’s release on $1.5 million bond. Zazi, meanwhile, was indicted on new charges, accused of conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction — apparently from chemicals he bought at beauty supply stores. Both men entered not-guilty pleas. Zazi, who allegedly admitted receiving training in explosives from Al-Qaeda in Pakistan, remains in jail.

The imam’s movements are severely limited and he must wear an electronic ankle bracelet. 

For his part, Kuby believes that Afzali will be exonerated should his case go to trial, claiming that the charge he lied to authorities doesn’t make sense: “Why in the world would he lie to people to alter the content of conversations that he knew were being taped?” the attorney asked.

Based on news reports, Kuby said it’s possible that the New York Police Department may have been operating independently of the F.B.I. and that his client got caught up in the crossfire between rival law-enforcement agencies during a terror probe fraught with panic.

“This investigation was unfolding so quickly and nobody really knew what was going on,” he mused. “Not only did they not know what the other agencies were doing, they didn’t know what the bad guys were doing and they were trying very hard to make sure the bad buys didn’t blow up New York. I think the initial impulse was: ‘Let’s arrest [Afzali], charge him with something and then we’ll take a few days to sort out who said what, who did what, who’s playing what role.’ ”

Robert Nardoza, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Eastern District, declined comment on a pending case.

But Paul J. Browne, deputy commissioner for public information for the N.Y.P.D. and its top spokesperson, denied Kuby’s claim that the New York police may have operated independently of the F.B.I. and later had a “falling out” over the case.

“The assertion is untrue,” Browne said when asked to comment in an e-mail. “The N.Y.P.D. Intelligence Division did not conduct an ‘independent probe.’ All aspects were coordinated between the F.B.I. and the N.Y.P.D., including the Intelligence Division’s activities, successful coordination that F.B.I. Director Mueller cited in congressional testimony last week.”

James Margolin, a spokesman for the F.B.I.’s New York office, also claimed the F.B.I. and the N.Y.P.D. had a “successful relationship” and were “working together on an ongoing case.” He noted that there have only been three arrests thus far: those of Zazi and his father, Mohammad (for allegedly lying to investigators), and Afzali, with only the younger Zazi getting hit with an indictment on terror charges that could send him to prison for the rest of his life.

The imam, meanwhile, has been branded in some media reports as a snitch and double agent who betrayed the N.Y.P.D.

“That’s as wrong as the terrorist stuff which happily the government has now dropped,” said Kuby. “He’s not being charged with obstruction of justice. He’s not being charged as some sort of Al-Qaeda double agent, notwithstanding the innuendo. Let’s be very clear as to what happened, when it happened and why it happened. The police had worked with the imam and had gone to him on a fairly regular basis. And he had done what Americans say they want Islamic religious leaders to do — just to cooperate with the police when there’s an investigation. So the imam did that. He didn’t get paid and he didn’t wear a wire. He’s not a jihadist and he has no sympathy for these people. America has been good to him.”

Kuby and his mentor Bill Kunstler, who specialized in pariah cases, briefly represented three accused Muslim terrorists after the first World Trade Center attack in 1993 until a judge told them they could only represent two. That may be why Kuby, an unabashed Marxist who grew up poor in Cleveland and now proudly admits making six figures a year, says he’s “happy” not to be defending Najibullah Zazi even though he was asked to.

“I don’t know him, but a member of Mr. Zazi’s extended family called me after the imam was arrested to see if I could represent him,” Kuby said. “I told him I couldn’t because that would be a conflict of interest” — that is, he couldn’t represent another terror suspect when he was already getting information on the case from his current client, the imam.With a smile, the radical lawyer explained that based on the aforesaid judge’s ruling, he now only represents “one client per plot.”

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