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Trial for Sudbury terror suspect pushed back

Tarek Mehanna is accused of giving material support to terrorist groups and conspiracy to kill in a foreign country. Tarek Mehanna is accused of giving material support to terrorist groups and conspiracy to kill in a foreign country.
By Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / September 16, 2011

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A federal judge has postponed the trial of terrorism suspect Tarek Mehanna of Sudbury, giving defense lawyers more time to prepare for what he acknowledged was a case with copious and complex evidence.

US District Court Judge George A. O’Toole Jr. scheduled the trial for Oct. 24, when jury selection will begin, three weeks later than originally planned.

O’Toole said he was reluctant to change the long-established trial date because it would throw off his court’s schedule. But he acknowledged that the number of documents could be overwhelming.

“Even the government has underestimated the [amount of] evidence and the ability to process it,’’ O’Toole said. “This is a very unusual and complex case.’’

The ruling was a victory for defense lawyers, who had argued that federal prosecutors had delayed turning over hundreds of thousands of documents in the case as required. The defense had also argued that the organization of the evidence - including hundreds of thousands of pages of e-mails and writings, many in Arabic - was “garbled.’’ They said prosecutors failed to properly outline their strategy, a tactic to confuse the defense.

“We simply are just not going to be ready,’’ Janice Bassil, one of Mehanna’s lawyers, said in court yesterday.

“We’re very pleased that the judge granted us additional time to prepare this daunting case for trial,’’ said J.W. Carney Jr., another defense lawyer. “The government has provided us with over 17,000 documents in the last two weeks and [yesterday] informed the judge that they would be giving us two hard drives’ worth of further material. We have to have time to review it and incorporate it into our planning for trial.’’

Prosecutors did not oppose the request to delay the trial. But they objected to the defense lawyers’ allegation that they delayed handing over the evidence as a strategy, saying in court records: “The government has tried as diligently as it is able to produce and reproduce [discovery materials] in a form preferred by the defendant. There is no pleasing the defense, despite extraordinary efforts to do so.

“The government has been going above and beyond what is required in an effort to assist the defense; however, the defense cannot sit back and demand that the government do their work for them, especially in terms of their preference and organization.’’

Prosecutors said that defense lawyers failed to see the complexity of the evidence as trial neared.

Mehanna, 28, a US citizen, was arrested in 2008 and charged with lying to an FBI investigator. He was indicted on new charges in 2009, accused of providing material support to terrorist groups and conspiracy to kill in a foreign country.

Mehanna, who holds a doctoral degree from the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, was about to travel to Saudi Arabia for a new job when he was arrested.

According to court records, prosecutors consider him a “homegrown terrorist’’ who may have led a local cell aimed at supporting terrorists.

Prosecutors say Mehanna traveled to Yemen in 2004 to seek terrorism training. When he failed to get the training, he returned to the United States and planned to aid terrorist organizations by serving in a “media wing,’’ translating documents promoting violent jihad and distributing them over the Internet.

Defense lawyers say that Mehanna’s travels to Yemen were for education, not for any type of terrorism training. They also say he has the First Amendment right to discuss his own political and religious beliefs and to translate documents related to that right, no matter how controversial the topic.

They say there is no evidence he was working for any terrorism organization or at any organization’s direction, but that he was expressing dissent against American policies, a dissent held by many.

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.