Cousins of convicted Boston bomber Tsarnaev testify about his childhood in penalty phase of trial

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Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

BOSTON (CNN) — Raisat Suleimanov remembers her cousin — convicted Boston bomber Dzhokhar “Jahar” Tsarnaev — as a sweet boy with a big smile who wept when Mufasa, Simba’s father in the animated movie, “The Lion King,” is killed by Scar, his evil brother.

“He was very sorry the lion died,” she said.

On cross-examination, Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Weinreb started to ask Suleimanov a question: “You agree that the person who cries at the death of a cartoon character but is indifferent to the suffering of hundreds … ” — his question was cut short by defense objection and he wasn’t allowed to finish. But Weinreb’s point was clear.

A Moscow nurse and mother of a 3-year-old, Suleimanov traveled from Russia to Boston, she told defense attorney William Fick in Russian, to testify Monday in the penalty phase of Tsarnaev’s capital murder trial.

While the prosecution has painted Tsarnaev as unremorseful, the defense has sought to spare him from the death penalty by presenting testimony that Tsarnaev was merely following the lead of his co-conspirator brother, Tamerlan, who Tsarnaev apparently admired greatly.

A jury last month found Tsarnaev guilty of all 30 counts, including 17 that could send him to death row.

Tsarnaev showed a rare glimmer of emotion during Monday’s hearing, dabbing his eyes Monday as his aunt, who hadn’t seen him since he was a child, broke down in tears on the witness stand.

Patimat Suleimanov was so overcome by emotion that she was asked to step down and compose herself.

Other female relatives described Tsarnaev as a sweet child, but they took pains to disavow the bombings and any form of radical Islam.

“I categorically reject what he did. It’s a great tragedy, of course,” Raisat Suleimanov said.

‘This child has changed me’

Referring to Tsarnaev as her brother because she said she feels “very close” to her male cousins, Suleimanov told the court how her family would spend summers with the Tsarnaevs in Kaspiysk, along the Caspian Sea.  She last saw him when he was 8, she testified.

Their aunt, she said, was strict with the children: “We couldn’t go out of bounds with her.” But Tsarnaev’s kindness and his reaction to Mufasa’s death changed her.  She became more loving, even with the children, Suleimanov said.

“My aunt said, ‘I can’t understand how such a small child could sympathize, could understand such tragedy,’ ” Suleimanov recalled. “When Jahar was staying with her, with his kindness he changed her. He could do whatever he wanted. She even said herself, ‘This child has changed me.’ ”

Another cousin, Nabisat Suleimanov, told jurors Tsarnaev was warm, caring and “one would want to hug him and not let him go. He was an unusual child.”

She, too, remembered the effect Tsarnaev had on her aunt, who loved young Tsarnaev so much that she even excused some rather inappropriate behavior from him, which the other children couldn’t understand.

“She’s a very stern woman. She worked in the security forces and was very pedantic and made her children follow the rules all the time. And when Jahar appeared, she changed drastically. She would even let him urinate in the sink in the kitchen, and it was very strange for us.”

Both cousins appeared nervous on the stand. And while Raisat Suleimanov remembers the Tsarneavs being Muslim, they didn’t come off as all that devout, she said. They didn’t pray five times a day, for instance, she said.

Writing on wall?

Other aunts and cousins described their alarm at seeing Tsarnaev’s mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, who had always been a bit of a fashion plate, wearing a traditional hijab during a 2010 visit.

“It was scary to look at her. We have never had people like that in our family,” said one of her sisters, Shakahruzat Suleimanov. “We prayed, we fasted, but no people like that. My oldest sister asked, ‘Do they dress like that in America? Why do you look like that?’ ”

Relatives also expressed shock over Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s conversations about radical Islam during visits in 2012.

“When we were told he was an adherent of some sort of radical Islam, I was afraid,” said cousin Naida Suleimanov, sister of Raisat Suleimanov.

She also expressed concern at Zubeidat Tsarnaeva’s change in demeanor, as evidenced by her transition from couture to traditional Muslim dress.

“She was wearing hijab, black scarf. It was strange for us to see our aunt like that. When she lived here she dressed very well. She wore gold and diamonds. This dramatic change, it was very strange to see her covered all over,” Naida Suleimanov said.

Her family never embraced the most conservative tenets of Islam, she said.

“Our parents didn’t teach us these things. They told us to pray, and to read the prayers. They’re far away from all this,” she testified.

‘Betrayal’

Naida Suleimanov, who sometimes babysat Dzhokhar and Tamerlan before she moved to Moscow in 2000, also cried on the stand. Now a gas station cashier, she told jurors that it had been years since she had seen her “beloved brother,” and it wasn’t easy for her.

“There was never an occasion when he didn’t have a smile on his face,” she said.

Shown a photo of Tamerlan Tsarnaev in a track suit balancing a much smaller Dzhokhar on his shoulders, she recalled how Dzhokhar Tsarnaev always looked up to his older brother and followed his example.

Monday’s testimony closed with Rosa Booth, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s former classmate. She sat next to him in math class and had a crush on him, but when he asked her out to prom, she declined because she was too shy, she said.

Asked what she felt after learning he was accused of involvement in the Boston Marathon bombing, she replied, “Betrayal.”