Boston bombing trial: Tsarnaev breaks stoic facade, blows kiss to tearful aunt

As the penalty phase of the Boston Marathon bombing trial draws to a close, testimony from relatives offers a glimpse of the defendant's childhood.

Jane Flavell Collins/AP
In this courtroom sketch, Shakhruzat Suleimanova, (r.) an aunt of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, is depicted alongside an interpreter as she testifies during the penalty phase in the Tsarnaev's trial Monday,, in federal court in Boston.

For almost two months Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has sat at the heart of the Boston Marathon bombing trial. And until this morning, that heart could only be described as stone. Then, Monday, a crack appeared in that stoic facade. As his relatives testified on his behalf, he appeared to cry.

Through weeks of wrenching and emotional testimony, Mr. Tsarnaev has remained almost statue-like sitting at a table with his attorneys. He barely flinched listening to dozens of victims of the bombings describe their injuries, and he stood impassive as the jury read out 30 guilty charges against him a month ago.

This morning, however, the jury and the public saw Tsarnaev emote for perhaps the first time as a half-dozen relatives from Russia were called to testify.

The five witnesses – all women from his mother’s side of the family – spent the morning on the stand describing Tsarnaev and his family from before they emigrated to the United States in 2002. 

“I came for the sake of my [cousin], who I love very much,” said Raisa Suleimanova, the first witness of the day, through a translator. 

“He’s part of my family,” she added. “I have no right not to come here.”

Most of the relatives hadn’t seen Tsarnaev since he left for America as an eight-year-old, and could only testify to what he was like as a young child.

“He was a very light child, very kind, a very warm child,” said Ms. Suleimanova. “His kindness made everyone around him kind.”

Suleimanova described how a young Tsarnaev had cried while watching "The Lion King." Another cousin – Nabisat Suleimanova – described just before the afternoon lunch break how he’d charmed a particularly strict aunt.

“She made her children follow the rules all the time, and when Dzhokhar appeared he changed her drastically,” said Ms. Suleimanova. “He was the first one who helped [her] discover her maternal feelings.”

When Suleimanova finished her testimony she took a seat in the front row with Patimat Suleimanova, one of Tsarnaev’s aunts. Patimat was supposed to testify as well but ended up spending only a few minutes on the stand; she cried so hard she was excused after answering only a handful of basic questions. 

For the most part, his relatives testified about his parents. Shakhruzat Suleimanova, Tsarnaev’s aunt, described raising his mother, Zubeidat, while their mother was in the hospital.

Zubeidat Tsarnaev, the youngest of four daughters, was raised mostly by her sisters. After their mother died, she spent the next few years living with a series of older brothers until she moved to Siberia, eventually meeting Anzor Tsarnaev, marrying him and starting a family.

The witnesses described how the Tsarnaevs moved frequently throughout the 1980s and 1990s before finally emigrating to the United States.

“They were always living out of suitcases, so to speak,” testified Naida Suleimanova.

The relatives also testified to Zubeidat Tsarnaev’s increased devotion to Islam while she lived in America. Shakhruzat Suleimanova described Zubeidat visiting one year looking “the same” – dressed in colorful Western clothes – then described her visiting several years later dressed in a black burqa.

“It was scary to look at her. We’d never had people like that in our family,” she said. 

“She had never been like that, she had always been fun-loving, she had never covered her hair with a scarf,” she added. “When she came like that we were in shock.”

The testimony appeared to move Tsarnaev. At one point, he dabbed at his face with a tissue. When leaving the courtroom for the midday lunch break, Tsarnaev blew a quick kiss to his aunt and cousin as two US Marshals escorted him out of the room.

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