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Mehanna Found Guilty In Terrorism Trial

Souad Mehanna, of Sudbury, Mass., second from right, mother of Tarek Mehanna, also of Sudbury, departs federal court with unidentified women, in Boston, Tuesday. (AP)

BOSTON — Tarek Mehanna, at age 29, may be spending the rest of his life in prison, following his conviction on charges of conspiring to support al-Qaida and to kill American soldiers in Iraq.

With dramatic and decisive speed, a federal jury in Boston on Tuesday found the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy graduate guilty on all seven counts.

The Sudbury resident has been at the center of what defense attorneys called an attack on the First Amendment, but what federal prosecutors say was the English language wing of al-Qaida on the Internet.

“The job of law enforcement agencies and prosecutors is to bring terrorists to justice,” said U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, who stood alongside her prosecutors and the FBI outside the federal courthouse to proclaim success in preventing terrorism before it happened.

What ended darkly for the defense began brightly.

“We all concluded that the government had not proven the picture of Tarek they wanted to present to that jury,” said defense co-counsel J.W. Carney.

As the jurors began their deliberations, Carney and his partner Janice Bassil talked hopefully about the prospects of an acquittal in a building whose halls inspire hope, but whose courtrooms speak in cold statistics about outcomes that are stark indeed.

About 97 percent of all criminal cases that come here end in guilty pleas. And of those that go to trial, about 85 percent end in convictions.

In short order, with their expression of hope still echoing, the jurors came back with the jolt of a swift verdict consistent with the odds.

The Jury’s Guilty Verdict

Mehanna kept his poise as a juror read, “We the jurors find the defendant guilty” — seven different times.

Mehanna kept his poise. His mother sobbed, then broke down in grief and needed to be carried from the courtroom.

Bassil wiped tears from her eyes, then joined Carney outside in bitter criticism of federal judge George O’Toole and “the extraordinary leeway that the prosecution was given to put inflammatory, prejudicial evidence day after day, week after week, that was really so important to the charges, that that evidence was never once mentioned during either prosecutors’ closing argument,” she said.

Carney complained about reference after reference to Osama bin Laden, photos of 9/11 and the Twin Towers. During the trial Carney had sarcastically asked one government witness if he wanted to go ahead and mention bin Laden yet one more time.

“Frankly, this was one of the most cynical government cases I have ever seen tried. Picture after picture, just wanting to scare the jury, deal after deal to government witnesses,” Bassil said.

The government witnesses were Mehanna’s friends and associates. They were given immunity or incentives to testify against Mehanna when they themselves might have had even more criminal culpability, like calling for the bombing of a North Attleboro shopping mall or shooting former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, the defense charged.

But Ortiz said that the evidence came not just from Mehanna’s friends and conspirators but, “evidence that came from statements he made, statements that were recorded, evidence that was obtained from his computer.”

Unable to find terrorist training in Yemen, Mehanna had come back to the U.S. intent on waging electronic jihad by translating al-Qaida videos and documents, the government said. His friends said that the boy who played baseball and Nirvana in the suburbs of Boston had wed himself to extreme ideology and to watching videos celebrating suicide bombings and beheadings.

“Once the government learned that Mr. Mehanna — of his intentions towards America, especially American soldiers, and his increasing radicalization, to have done nothing would have been inexcusable,” Ortiz said.

His attorneys argued that Mehanna was a budding Islamic scholar who followed an independent path from al-Qaida, that his stated opposition to U.S. foreign policy and its wars was “independent advocacy,” the expression of First Amendment rights.

Free Speech Vs. Supporting Terrorism

“It’s a sad day for civil rights. It’s a sad day for the First Amendment,” Bassil said.

We don’t prosecute people for expressing their rights to free speech, the U.S. attorney insisted.

But charging Mehanna with providing material support for terrorism on the basis of translations was considered the biggest reach of the Justice Department so far in its prosecution of alleged terrorists. That prosecutors won a slam dunk conviction after less than 10 hours of jury deliberation had defense attorneys saying this is an invitation for the Justice Department to reach even farther.

“The charges scare people,” Carney said.

As Mehanna faces the prospect of a sentence to life in prison in connection with conspiracy to kill in a foreign country, his co-defendant in this trial is a fugitive because that man, Ahmed Abousamra, who clearly went to Yemen in search of terrorist training, was allowed to leave the U.S. in 2004.

“How concerned are you that his co-defendant was allowed to leave this country by government authorities. How concerned are you?” I asked Ortiz.

“I believe he is a fugitive right now and we have made efforts to pursue him,” said Ortiz.

“I’ll quibble with your characterization that he was allowed to leave,” said prosecutor Aloke Chakravarty. “If you read the indictment, there was no criminal charge preventing him from leaving the United States, he’s a United States citizen, he was allowed to go.”

Yet the fact is that the co-defendant had already been interviewed by the FBI. And keeping him from leaving the country might have been a simple matter. After all, the FBI questioned Mehanna and then charged him with making false statements. But Abousamra got away, and Mehanna was the defendant who didn’t.

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  • Anonymous

    Interesting to speculate what would have (not) happened had the FBI flagged the pre-violence indicators in the Ft. Hood shooter, Broadway Bomber, et al, cases? When does “freedom-of-expression” intersect with pro-active radical action? In cases involving Muslims with a jihadi bent, past is prologue. The jury was right to convict.

    • LocalObserver

      How much latitude does the government get to to prosecute people based on “pre-violence indicators”? If police and prosecutors arrest and try all of us…no more crime!…no more violence! This isn’t Alice in Wonderland. Or is it? How about if we have the crime first and then the conviction.

      • Anonymous

        My point was oversimplified. At a minimum, the Army should have discharged Hassan based on his repeated behavior. But even that would have been difficult given the PC orientation of the military. Maybe lawful “entrapment” is the answer.
        Sent from my iPad

        • LocalObserver

          Thank you for the clarification. My concern is with the expansion of federal prosecutorial powers based on vague language like “material support (to terrorists),” which seemed to have a narrower meaning before this trial began. I am having trouble finding the crime here, in terms of his alleged terrorist involvement. I don’t want people punished for “thought crimes” or speech or translations. (CNN has done its share of that….that’s where I’ve seen all my Bin Laden and jihadist training videos, with translations provided). Leaving slavery aside, our greatest violations of civil liberties have occurred during and right after wars. This case and the verdict seem to me to be an overreach, based on fear. Was it really necessary to show the jury videos of 9/11?

          • Anonymous

            I am not a lawyer but have read Andrew McCarthy’s (NY State Prosecutor who put the blind sheik away) books (Willful Blindness, et al), Victor Davis Hanson’s book on Obama’s approach to National Security, to name but a few, and concluded that when dealing with “committed” Muslims one should take them at their words. Hasan’s business card “S of A” (soldier of Allah) is rooted in Islamic ideology and has very definite implications. The translations that were published in “Inspire” magazine were clearly meant to inspire committed Muslims on the cusp of being radicalized to cross the line. Showing a video of 9/11 may have been over-the-top but sadly a gross illustration that when devout Islamists declare war or advocate jihad they really mean it.
            John

            Sent from my iPad

          • LocalObserver

            “when devout Islamists declare war or advocate jihad they really mean it.” Perhaps. But in a  judicial proceeding you can’t (or , rather, shouldn’t) prosecute and convict based on a stereotype or even  a statistical probability. There has to be a violation of law, a crime, and there has to be sufficient evidence linking  a particular individual to that crime.

          • Anonymous

            Point taken. But when 91% of all acts of terror are perpetrated by Muslims, one would have to excuse thinking people of their tendency to “profile” or as we used to say in the AF, doing a little “dead-reckoning”. How many times does the West have to get hit before it recognizes that it’s not “workplace violence” but radical Islam albeit from a “tiny minority” of about 150M.
            John

            Sent from my iPad

          • LocalObserver

            The history of terrorism is a long and complicated one. Considering the the present moment, radical Islam presents the main threat, but this group does not include all religious Moslems. Nor are all terrorists Moslems (e.g., recent massacre in Norway). The tendency to profile may be understandable, but it can’t be tolerated in the courts. Internationally, apart from military force when necessary, I hope we pursue intelligent policies that isolate religious fanatics who think they have license to perpetrate horrific crimes. That goes for all fanatics of all faiths.

          • Anonymous

            Mercifully, not all Muslims are radical. The expert estimates I have seen suggest that between 10 & 15% of Muslims are radical (varies by country). If accurate, that would roughly mean a population the size of Brazil – not exactly a few fanatics. The main difference between non- Muslim and Muslim extremists, numbers aside, is that one rarely hears of non-Muslims yelling “God is great” when committing their violent acts. Islamic sacred texts stand alone amongst the religions of the world in that they command adherents to be intolerant – and worse – toward “non-believers”.
            John

            Sent from my iPad

  • Michaelemay

    Kudos to David Boeri. Really lays out the ramifications of the verdict.

    If interested in learning a bit more about who Tarek Mehanna was, check out this profile I wrote for the new international news website, Latitude News:

    http://www.latitudenews.com/story/tarek-mehanna-suburban-teenager-accused-terrorist/

  • Beez

    Considering his “interaction” was with fed. agents of some variety, I don’t see how he is guilty of conspiring with terrorists, or whatever he was convicted of.
    This story doesn’t add up. Seems like entrapement. His brother was compelling yesterday.
    Seems to me like another case of trying to justify the billions spent on this “war” on terror.
    Raises larger concerns about our dwindling freedoms. How can he be facing life for basically “percieved intent”?

  • LocalObserver

    I am embarrassed to have to tell you that some of my own ultra orthodox co-religionists in Israel have justified acts of terror against Palestinians and even the assassination of their own Prime Minister (Rabin) on the basis of a special relationship to God and their own authoritative interpretation of Biblical injunctions. True they might not be yelling, God is great, but they are thinking it. Religious fanatics should really have their own country. They share a great deal….a kind of nationality of their own. I am not learned where sacred texts are concerned–whether Christian, Moslem, or Jewish–but I don’t think the behavior of the Crusaders or the practices that characterized the two-hundred years of the Office of the Inquisition in Rome will win any posthumous religious tolerance awards from the ACLU.

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