BOSTON/South Boston – Dr. Tarek Mehanna, a 29 year old pharmacist from Sudbury, Massachusetts, entered the courtroom at the Moakley Federal Courthouse on Wednesday wearing an orange prison jumpsuit. Mehanna is being charged with conspiring to commit terrorism and lending material support to a global Islamic jihad against the United States. Defense attorneys, J.W. Carney Jr. and Janice Bassil, made several pre-trial motions, including a request that the judge to set bail so Mehanna could return home pending his trial in October.
Mehanna's family watched the court proceedings along with dozens of supporters from communities of faith, civil rights activists, journalists, and others spilling over into an observation room on closed circuit TV.
The first issue addressed by the court was his ongoing detention. The defense argued that Mehanna is not a danger to society, nor a flight risk, and that the burden is on the prosecution to show otherwise. He had been arrested then released in 2008, before being arrested a second time, without fleeing or getting into more trouble with the law. The prosecution argued that Mehanna was a flight risk because he wanted to leave the country for a job in Saudi Arabia and that he had been “radicalized” and should be considered dangerous.
At the time of his arrest in October of 2009, FBI officials said Mehanna was planning to shoot people at a shopping mall and assassinate two political figures in the executive branch. Since then he has spent the last 15 months in 23-hour solitary confinement. However, the indictment released last June accused Mehanna of providing “material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization” and acting as a “media wing” for al Qaeda.
Supporters of Mehanna say that the government is targeting the Muslim community and trying to make an example of Mehanna. Carney Jr. explained to media outside the courthouse that “the government told him he would be charged with a crime, and wanted him to become an informant, and he declined to become an informant, months later he was charged.”
In the defense's request for bail, Attorney Janice Bassil included complaints over the conditions of Mehanna's detention. His “rec” hour comes at random times, making it difficult to plan phone calls or coordinate physical exercise with a shower. Furthermore, Mehanna's ability to write has been limited by burdensome rules such as being shackled and only being given the ink inner tube of a pen.
Next the court took up a bill of particulars motion by the defense, which asked the prosecution to name the specific evidence that will be used against Mehanna. Years worth of computer records including emails and instant message conversations – many in Arabic – were seized by the FBI, creating the equivalent to 2,800 pages of material for lawyers to sift through. Government attorneys argued however that the defense was trying to “unfairly hinder the government by limiting available evidence.”
Although Mehanna did not carry out an act of terrorism, the government argues that Mehanna's intentions are sufficient for prosecution. Mehanna made a trip to Yemen in 2004, which the government claims was an attempt to seek training at a terrorist camp. Mehanna's defense maintains that he was only seeking religious education.
Whether terrorist training camps even existed in Yemen at the time of his trip is a question included in a request by the defense for exculpatory evidence from the government. But such information may not be forthcoming due to national security concerns.
Also at the core of the government's case against Mehanna is his work translating ancient Islamic texts from Arabic into English. One document titled Thirty-Nine Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad, could be considered material support for terrorism under the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.
Prosecuting attorney Chakravarty laid out the case that Mehanna did not merely translate this text, but “tried to live it.” The government claims Mehanna tried to obtain weapons and sought training. Mehanna's education as a pharmacist could be used to aid jihadists. Even now, “his website freetarek.com, portrays him as a martyr” Chakravarty argued.
After two hours of debate, the court recessed for the day. U.S. District Court Judge George A. O'Toole Jr. will consider the arguments made and is expected to make a ruling in the next two weeks. Outside the courthouse, amid heavily armed security personnel, defense attorneys spoke to the press followed by a rally and press conference by Mehanna's supporters. Jason Lydon, pasture of the Community Church of Boston spoke on behalf of the Tarek Support Committee. “The prosecution has not presented any new evidence since 2006 and cannot justify his continued detention… Rampant Islamaphobia is at the root of this case. Dr. Mehanna is a known moderate in his political views.”
With chants of “Free Tarek Now” activists vowed to return and continue