Relatives, supporters, and attorneys for Tarek Mehanna were both hopeful and skeptical today as a federal appeals court was urged to overturn the former Sudbury man’s 2011 convictions for conspiring to kill American soldiers in Iraq and supporting Al Qaeda.
Attorney Sabin Willett asked a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit to throw out the convictions. He said Mehanna had only expressed his views, which he had a right to do, and there was insufficient evidence to show his client was linked to the Al Qaeda terror group.
“Our view is that if the government cannot tie the knot between Mehanna and Al Qaeda, this is simply speech, just protected opinion,” Willett said after the oral argument at the Moakley courthouse in South Boston. “We think this is a powerful argument. ... All he has done is talk a lot, and talk loudly.”
After a closely watched trial, Mehanna was sentenced to 17½ years in federal prison following his convictions on seven counts of conspiring to provide material support to terrorists, conspiring to kill in a foreign country, and of lying to authorities in a terrorism investigation.
Mehanna, a pharmacy college graduate student from Subdury, was convicted of providing material support to the terror group Al Qaeda for seeking out paramilitary training in Yemen so he could carry out jihad, or holy war, against US soldiers in Iraq. He was also convicted of using his knowledge of Arabic to translate and distribute documents promoting Al Qaeda’s ideology, in an effort to inspire others to violent jihad.
More than 50 family members and supporters attended the hearing today, including Kate Bonner-Jackson, 30, of Jamaica Plain, an organizer for the Tarek Mehanna Support Committee
“To me, it’s a case about Islamophobia and our dominance over other countries,” said Bonner-Jackson. “Tarek was vocal about people’s right to self-defense, especially in countries that the US invades.”
As was true when Mehanna was tried in the same courthouse in 2011 and then sentenced to prison in early 2012, Mehanna’s parents, Ahmed and Souad, and his younger brother, Tamer, were at the courthouse today.
“It was hard for me to come back to this [court] room again and see their [the prosecutors’] faces,” said Souad Mehanna. “My son is innocent and they’re still locking him away from me.”
After the oral argument, where the judges grilled federal prosecutors about the legal underpinnings and evidence in the case, Souad Mehanna was slightly hopeful.
“We can’t wait for him to come out and live his life, for all of us to live our lives,’’ she said, then added, “if we don’t win this time, we will keep fighting.”
But US Attorney Carmen Ortiz’s office urged the three-judge panel to leave Mehanna’s convictions intact. Assistant US Attorney Elizabeth Collery said the jury that convicted him heard “what his beliefs originally were, how he talked about them with other people, and [tried to] recruit others to his cause.”
During his trial, FBI agents testified about videos of suicide bombings and of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that were found on Mehanna’s computer, following a secret search of his Sudbury home in 2006. Mehanna also possessed videos and documents produced by Al Qaeda, and prosecutors said he used his knowledge of Arabic to translate them, following the terror group’s call for followers to spread its message in the West.
Prosecutors say the information showed Mehanna’s state of mind in 2004, when he traveled to Yemen with a friend, Ahmad Abousamra. A third man, Kareem Abuzahra, joined them but returned halfway through the trip after his father had reportedly gotten ill.
Abuzahra was also investigated, but he cooperated with authorities and testified under immunity that the three of them discussed going to Yemen to seek paramilitary training, so they could fight in Iraq.
Abuzahra testified that Mehanna had told him once he returned to the United States that he failed to find a terrorist camp, and he said they agreed to tell investigators a cover story that they went to Yemen in search of further schooling in their Muslim faith.
Defense attorneys sought to impeach the testimony of Abuzahra, who was seen as the government’s key witness. The lawyers got him to acknowledge that he was the one among his friends who inquired about obtaining weapons and who discussed the possibility of a domestic terror attack at an Air Force base or shopping mall.