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Defense For Alleged Sudbury Terrorist Argues First Amendment, Fear-Mongering

This article is more than 12 years old.

Lawyers for a Sudbury man federal prosecutors call a locally-bred terrorist are seeking his release on bail from a maximum security cell.

Tarek Mehanna has been in jail since October 2009, when prosecutors announced he had talked of a sniper attack on Americans in shopping malls. But his attorneys say the government is engaged in fear-mongering.

The Case Against Mehanna

According to the government's case against him, Tarek Mehanna was a terrorist by aspiration only.

Though he’s charged with conspiring to provide material support to terrorists, Mehanna never succeeded in acquiring any weapons. The government also states that he was rejected by every terrorist group he approached in Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

Outside the courthouse, U.S. marshals patrolled with fully automatic assault weapons and a police dog. For past hearings, they've also deployed police boats and gun-mounted whalers on the harbor.

Yet every time the allegedly aspirational terrorist comes to federal court for a hearing, the government puts on an extraordinary display of security.

'Free Tarek, Free Tarek!'

Outside the courthouse, family, friends and supporters from the Islamic Center, where Mehanna taught in Worcester, chanted and held signs. And U.S. Marshals patrolled with fully automatic assault weapons and a police dog. For past hearings, they've also deployed police boats and gun-mounted whalers on the harbor.

"We have heightened our security," said John Gibbons, the U.S. marshal for Massachusetts.

"This case centers around terrorism, and this is part of the heightened security. And our special response teams have been activated," he said.

Mehanna: A Danger To The Community?

Does Mehanna merit treatment as a danger to the community and a high risk of flight?

Prosecutors insist he does. They say the 28-year-old product of Lincoln-Sudbury High School, The Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and middle-class parents was radicalized. And even though the wanna- be jihadist didn't succeed in getting trained at terrorist camps overseas, they say Mehanna found something he was good at: the Internet. The government alleges he waged countless hours in "electronic jihad."

He translated "Thirty-Nine Ways To Serve and Participate In Jihad" from Arabic to English, Assistant U.S. Attorney Aloke Chakravarty told the judge. Mehanna made them "palatable" and by putting them up on websites, he made them "easy to consume," the prosecutor charged, to which the defense said, "nonsense."

The First Amendment Argument

"These are words. They're words," defense attorney Janice Bassil told the judge. Bassil said that Mehanna "said things that were crass, crude and sometimes just plain stupid. And those too are protected by the First Amendment."

"The 'Thirty-Nine Ways To Jihad' — these are words. We don't lock people up for words in this country, or at least I didn't think we did," Bassil said.

First Amendment rights, a red herring, Chakravarty told the judge. The instant messages, the praise for Osama Bin Laden, the online encouragement of others to join the jihad. It wasn't success, it was intent that was the crime the, prosecutor said.

So it wasn't a bomb, it was the keyboard. The translations were at the heart of the crime of providing material support to terrorists. And that constitutes new territory for federal prosecutors, according to some legal experts.

Outside, Janice Bassil struck back at the government.

"What is he charged with and what did he do?" Bassil asked.

What Mehanna didn't do, Bassil said, is agree to become an FBI informant, and that, she charges, is why he is being prosecuted with a case that's paper thin.

"There are 17 ways in which one can provide material support for terrorism and they've never delineated one of the 17 ways, if any, that he did," she said.

When agents arrested Mehanna in 2008 he was getting on a plane to Saudi Arabia he was fleeing the country, charged the prosecutor, and now that he's facing the possibility of life in prison, he has even more reason to flee if he gets out on bail.

The judge said he would rule on the motion later. So Mehanna went back to maximum security in a convoy of flashing lights and sirens. He's scheduled for trial in October.

This program aired on February 24, 2011.

David Boeri Senior Reporter
Now retired, David Boeri was a senior reporter at WBUR.



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