ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Federal prosecutors presented tearful testimony Tuesday from the mother of a sickly toddler who was whisked away from his Georgia home by relatives without her permission to a remote desert encampment in northern New Mexico where he died.
Four family members, including the boy's aunts, are facing kidnapping or terrorism charges, or both, that stem from an August 2018 raid in search of the 3-year-old boy at a squalid encampment near the Colorado line. Authorities said they found the suspects living with 11 hungry children without running water at the encampment encircled by berms of tires with an adjacent shooting range where guns and ammunition were seized.
The badly decomposed body of Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj was eventually found in an underground tunnel at the compound.
Abdul-Ghani’s mother, Hakima Ramzi, recounted her love and devotion to a cheerful son who lived with severe developmental disabilities and frequent seizures — and her shock when husband, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, and his sibling accused her of casting spells on the boy.
“He accused me of black magic, I’m not that type of a woman to practice black magic,” said Ramzi, a native of Morocco who spoke in broken English.
Ramzi said her denials fell on deaf ears. She said her husband and his sister traveled abroad to learn more about alternative healing based on the Quran.
After she demanded a divorce, Ramzi said that Siraj Ibn Wahhaj took their son to a park and never returned. She tried unsuccessfully, she said, to track them by phone before turning to police and then child protective services.
Authorities allege the family engaged in firearms and tactical training in preparation for attacks against the government, tied to an apparent belief by some that the boy would be resurrected as Jesus Christ and then explain which corrupt government and private institutions needed be eliminated.
Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, the boy's father, along with his sisters Hujrah and Subhanah Wahhaj, and the latter's husband, Lucas Morton, were charged with conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States, among other charges. Morton and Siraj Ibn Wahhaj were also charged with conspiracy to kill U.S. government personnel.
Because a cause of death was never determined federal prosecutors opted for kidnapping charges, but Siraj Ibn Wahhaj is the only one not yet charged with that because of his legal status as the boy’s father.
Prosecutors plan to present evidence that Siraj Ibn Wahhaj and his partner Jany Leveille, a Haitian national, took Abdul-Ghani in December 2017 to resettle in New Mexico, where they performed daily prayer rituals over the boy as he cried and foamed at the mouth. They also allege the child was deprived of medication as his health failed. Leveille was initially charged with kidnapping and terrorism-related charges but she has agreed to accept a reduced sentence on weapons charges. She has not appeared at the trial.
Defense attorneys for sisters Hujrah and Subhanah Wahhaj told the jury Tuesday that terrorism allegations against the mothers and New York City natives are largely based on a fantastical diary written by Leveille about her belief that Abdul-Ghani would be resurrected.
“It's all completely hypothetical,” said Donald Kochersberger who is representing Hujrah Wahhaj. “It's all just a fantasy.” He said the family’s hardscrabble efforts to secure basic shelter in a harsh, remote environment are being misrepresented by prosecutors as terrorism.
He added that Abdul-Ghani's death shortly after arriving in New Mexico was a shocking and sad outcome for a boy with fragile health but that what the government construes as kidnapping “really is just a family traveling together to New Mexico."
Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, who declined his right to an attorney, warned jurors that “the government will attempt to portray the closeness of family as terrorism.”
He urged the jurors to make up their own minds about the credibility of testimony gathered by the FBI from interviews with children.
Attorneys for the defendants have said previously that their clients would not be facing terrorism-related charges if they were not Muslim. The grandfather of the missing boy is the Muslim cleric Siraj Wahhaj, who leads a well-known New York City mosque that has attracted radicals over the years, including a man who later helped bomb the World Trade Center in 1993.
The elder Wahhaj watched the trial Tuesday afternoon from the courtroom gallery.
“I'm here with an open mind,” he said. “We're told in my religion to stand up for justice even if it's against your own family.”