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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Bike-path attacker’s mother says she wanted ‘tired’ son to leave US


Mukaddas Saipova, right, leaves Federal District court in Manhattan with a daughter after testifying in the death-penalty trial of her son Sayfullo Saipov, on Wednesday, March 1, 2023.

By Lola Fadulu


One day in 2017, Mukaddas Saipova, of Tashkent, Uzbekistan, saw her son — whom she knew as helpful, loving and kind — on a television news broadcast. She fainted, an ambulance came and she stayed in a hospital for a week.


Her son, Sayfullo Saipov, had just committed the deadliest terrorist attack in New York City since 9/11.


Saipova told that story through an interpreter to a federal jury in Manhattan on Wednesday, the final day of testimony during her son’s trial. The same jurors in January convicted Saipov, a 35-year-old native of Uzbekistan, of using a truck to kill eight people and injure many others on the West Side bike path on Halloween 2017. That jury is now weighing whether to sentence Saipov to life in prison without the possibility of release — or whether instead to sentence him to death.


The death penalty phase began last month, with prosecutors arguing that Saipov was too dangerous for prison, citing threats he has made while behind bars for the past five years.


“He is still threatening to eliminate people in prison, threatening to slit the throats of correction officers,” Amanda Houle, a federal prosecutor, said during her opening statement.


The jury also heard from numerous victims and relatives of those killed in the attack. Six of the eight people who died were tourists from Argentina and Belgium; the others were Nicholas Cleves, 23, a software engineer from Manhattan, and Darren Drake, 32, a financial worker from New Jersey.


The defense sought to humanize Saipov, showing childhood photographs and presenting testimony from several relatives, including his father, uncle, two sisters and a grandfather, in addition to his mother. The jury also heard from a terrorism expert who explained how powerful Islamic State propaganda is and why the group targets people from Uzbekistan, a predominantly Muslim nation in Central Asia that was formerly part of the Soviet Union.


“His past could not have predicted his present,” one of Saipov’s lawyers, David Stern, said in his opening statement.


‘Tired eyes’


Saipova recalled talking for hours with her son as he drove long distances as a trucker. She visited him in the United States several times after he won the immigration lottery. The first time was 2015, five years after he left Uzbekistan. “I was very anxious to see him,” she testified.


The third time she visited, in 2017, she grew worried, she said. “He looked tired. His eyes were tired,” Saipova testified. “I thought it would be great if he left and he came to Tashkent.”


He never did.


“If I insisted him to come with me,” she said, “maybe this wouldn’t happen.”


Saipova wasn’t the only relative to visit. Saipov’s grandfather Sobit Saipov said through an interpreter that he saw his oldest grandson in the United States several times: when Saipov got married and for the births of each of his three children.


During later visits, Sobit Saipov grew concerned about changes in his grandson’s appearance. “He grew a long beard, and it was suspicious for me,” he said.


Saipov told his grandfather he simply wanted to look older.


Sobit Saipov said he didn’t have any other choice than to believe his grandson. Stern asked whether he worried that the growing of the beard might presage a heinous attack.


“Who would imagine that kind of thing?” Sobit Saipov said through tears. “The person who was raised by me, I can’t believe that person would do something like this.”


Recruiting Uzbeks


Saipov voraciously consumed Islamic State propaganda before the attack. Noah Tucker, an expert on ISIS in Central Asia, told the jury that the terrorist group’s recruitment of Uzbeks was “remarkably successful.”


Uzbekistan, east of the Caspian Sea and a stop on the Silk Road, was part of the Soviet empire from the early 20th century to 1991, Tucker testified. Under Josef Stalin, religious leaders were sent to labor camps, where many perished.


Even after Uzbekistan gained its independence, it remained an authoritarian country. Tucker said that provided an opening for the Islamic State group, which promised to re-establish a religious caliphate.


For Uzbeks who leave the country, “Islam often becomes, in that situation, your primary identity, whether you sort of knew that before or not,” Tucker said.


“It also is a period where many Uzbek migrants begin to try to learn about what it means to be a Muslim that maybe they didn’t know before,” Tucker said. “Even simple things, like when to pray during the five daily prayers and how to wash yourself.”


Many such migrants encounter ISIS propaganda, he said, and recruiters contact them through online profiles. Tucker described creating a fake Facebook profile using a typical Uzbek name and using it to join a number of émigré groups.


“It took less than 24 hours before a recruiter was contacting that profile,” Tucker testified.


Staying silent


During the guilt phase of the trial, Saipov chose not to testify in his own behalf. On Wednesday, Judge Vernon S. Broderick of U.S. District Court offered Saipov another chance to address the jury. He declined.


On Wednesday afternoon, before the defense rested its case, the judge repeated his question to Saipov: “I’m going to ask you again as you sit here right now: Do you intend to testify?”


It would be his last opportunity, the judge indicated.


Saipov again said no.


What’s next?


A prosecutor and a defense lawyer are each expected to make closing arguments on Tuesday. The judge will instruct the jurors on the law. Then, the 12 members of the panel will begin their deliberations.

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