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Tarek Mehanna’s Sentence Criminalizes the Right of Muslims to “Vent” Their Frustrations

A 29-year-old Muslim man was sentenced to seventeen and a half years in prison on federal criminal charges of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists and providing or attempting to provide material support to terrorists. The “material support” the man was alleged to have given consisted of watching videos on “jihad,” sharing his views on suicide bombings in conversations, translating texts that were already available on the Internet and seeking information on those believed to have attacked America on September 11, 2001.

It was contended by those following the case that what this man, Tarek Mehanna, was charged with doing was covered under the First Amendment. Back in February 2003, a similar case unfolded. Sami Omar Al-Hussayen in Boise, Idaho, was “accused of designing websites and posting messages on the Internet to recruit and raise funds for terrorist missions in Chechnya and Israel. His attorneys argued that he was being prosecuted for expressing views protected by the 1st Amendment.” After a seven-week trial, Al-Hussayen was acquitted on three terrorism charges and also acquitted on “one count of making a false statement and two counts of visa fraud.”

But, as ACLU of Massachusetts Nancy Murray expertly details in her op-ed on Mehanna’s sentencing, the punishment was severe in this case because the prosecution managed to make Mehanna the “poster boy” for their “radicalization thesis” that he was a “violent extremist” who had “lived a double life” and never “expressed any remorse for his crimes.” They bought into a theory advanced by the same police department that the Associated Press has shown targets and spies on Muslims, the New York Police Department. They believed Mehanna was going through a “domestic radicalization process” that was being spurred by his activity on the Internet and the jury and judge bought into this theory.

Murray makes clear that this fear of “radicalization” does not apply to any Christian warrior or sovereign citizen groups like individuals who consider themselves to be a part of the Hutaree militia. In the case of David Stone and others in this anti-government group that had “amassed a huge arsenal of weapons, including the ingredients for explosives, and allegedly plotted to kill a police officer and bomb his funeral,” a federal judge in Michigan determined what these men had been saying were “mere words” and not “sufficient” enough to show “a conspiracy.” They were acquitted on the most serious charges.

What Stone had said evinced “nothing more than his own hatred for — perhaps even desire to fight or kill — law enforcement” and was not the same as “seditious conspiracy,” the judge concluded. No “agreement” or “plan of action” existed. He simply engaged in “mere advocacy or hateful speech” and, as Judge Victoria Roberts said, Stone and others were “just venting.” The judge didn’t think this was a step in a “domestic radicalization process,” even though the members had possessed weapons.

There was no plot hatched by Mehanna and he had objected to engaging in violent attacks against the United States when a friend suggested it to him. The prosecution focused on a trip he took to Yemen in 2004 where he tried to join a “terror training camp” and failed (his brother, Tamer Mehanna, disputed this on Democracy Now! saying the prosecution could cite no examples of “camps” that were in the country when Tarek visited). The prosecution suggested he had joined the “media wing” of Al Qaeda after visiting Yemen. (A “wing” that, by the way, can essentially include anybody the US government wants to include at any moment. The government currently asserts Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is accused of leaking classified information to WikiLeaks, “knowingly and indirectly provided intelligence” to Al Qaeda because he knew the information he allegedly provided would be published on the Internet.)

Mehanna’s eloquent sentencing statement shows all he ever did was “vent” his frustrations with US history. It is quite moving and, after it was shared in court, Judge George A. O’Toole knew he had to ensure Mehanna was sentenced for at least seventeen years because of what Mehanna had said. In fact, O’Toole said, “I’m frankly concerned about the defendant’s apparent absence of remorse.”

Media reports have put emphasis on the part of the statement where he said, “In your eyes I’m a terrorist. I’m the only one standing here in an orange jumpsuit…America will change and recognize this trial for what it is.” But, why is Mehanna so angry? What makes his statement one of the most profound appeals to Americans to empathize with what Muslims have experienced in the past decade?

In the statement, he recounts how he became a Muslim. He was inspired by Malcolm X when he was a teenager. He developed an increasing interest in the religion of Islam and became a devout follower. Then, he looked at what was happening to Muslims around the world and concluded the “powers that be” were “trying to destroy” what he “loved,” people he considered his Muslim brothers and sisters.

…I learned about the American-led sanctions that prevented food, medicine, and medical equipment from entering Iraq, and how – according to the United Nations – over half a million children perished as a result. I remember a clip from a ’60 Minutes‘ interview of Madeline Albright where she expressed her view that these dead children were “worth it.” I watched on September 11th as a group of people felt driven to hijack airplanes and fly them into buildings from their outrage at the deaths of these children. I watched as America then attacked and invaded Iraq directly. I saw the effects of ’Shock & Awe’ in the opening day of the invasion – the children in hospital wards with shrapnel from American missiles sticking but of their foreheads (of course, none of this was shown on CNN).

I learned about the town of Haditha, where 24 Muslims – including a 76-year old man in a wheelchair, women, and even toddlers – were shot up and blown up in their bedclothes as the slept by US Marines. I learned about Abeer al-Janabi, a fourteen-year old Iraqi girl gang-raped by five American soldiers, who then shot her and her family in the head, then set fire to their corpses. I just want to point out, as you can see, Muslim women don’t even show their hair to unrelated men. So try to imagine this young girl from a conservative village with her dress torn off, being sexually assaulted by not one, not two, not three, not four, but five soldiers. Even today, as I sit in my jail cell, I read about the drone strikes which continue to kill Muslims daily in places like Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Just last month, we all heard about the seventeen Afghan Muslims – mostly mothers and their kids – shot to death by an American soldier, who also set fire to their corpses…

It’s a stirring indictment, especially since none of the officials responsible for these policies have faced any accountability for any of this violence. This is all justified in the perpetual “war on terrorism” that isn’t about fighting Muslims but so often destroys the lives of people who are devout followers of Islam.

If that didn’t convince the judge the government was right and he had to be put in jail for at least seventeen years, this next part of his statement did:

I mentioned Paul Revere – when he went on his midnight ride, it was for the purpose of warning the people that the British were marching to Lexington to arrest Sam Adams and John Hancock, then on to Concord to confiscate the weapons stored there by the Minuteman. By the time they got to Concord, they found the Minuteman waiting for them, weapons in hand. They fired at the British, fought them, and beat them. From that battle came the American Revolution. There’s an Arabic word to describe what those Minutemen did that day. That word is: JIHAD, and this is what my trial was about.

All those videos and translations and childish bickering over ‘Oh, he translated this paragraph’ and ‘Oh, he edited that sentence,’ and all those exhibits revolved around a single issue: Muslims who were defending themselves against American soldiers doing to them exactly what the British did to America. It was made crystal clear at trial that I never, ever plotted to “kill Americans” at shopping malls or whatever the story was. The government’s own witnesses contradicted this claim, and we put expert after expert up on that stand, who spent hours dissecting my every written word, who explained my beliefs. Further, when I was free, the government sent an undercover agent to prod me into one of their little “terror plots,” but I refused to participate. Mysteriously, however, the jury never heard this. [emphasis added]

He said what observers of this trial understood clearly: he wasn’t being prosecuted for engaging in expression or speech that is protected under the First Amendment. He was prosecuted because he believes it is acceptable for Muslims to defend the sovereignty of the country they live in against foreign troops like the United States military. And, he picked up on this reality that the United States government has cast people who fight back against occupying forces as “terrorists.”

Mehanna is not alone in being prosecuted for fighting back. In 2010, the Obama Administration proceeded with a trial against Omar Khadr, a child who had been imprisoned at Guantanamo. As Andy Worthington detailed, he was put on trial for the “war crime” of “allegedly throwing a hand grenade that killed a US Delta Force soldier.” His lawyer said, “There is no evidence that he violated the law of war,” if he threw the grenade. Whoever threw the grenade was “attacking a lawful military target with a lawful weapon,” Worthington added. Khadr was sentenced to forty years in prison but could only serve eight because of a pre-trial plea deal for fighting back.

Unlike Khadr’s case, Mehanna was not accused of committing any actual act with any actual weapon. Still, he was kept in solitary confinement and in the trial Attorney General Eric Holder was permitted to keep any evidence that was collected under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) from being shown to any member of Mehanna’s defense team, making it virtually impossible to have a fair trial.

Mehanna’s sentencing just makes what the London-based group CagePrisoners and Andrew Rosenthal of the New York Times have called attention to recently: there is a separate legal system for Muslims. Individuals who are Muslim are not entitled to the same freedoms and justice non-Muslims enjoy in the United States.

CagePrisoners put out a report this week that documented how this system allows secret arrest and imprisonment, imprisonment without trial, the misuse of material arrest warrants, arbitrary detention under the pretext of minor immigration violations, entrapment, etc. It permits prison conditions that guards admit are only marginally better than Guantanamo Bay prison. These conditions are why Europeans have been reluctant to permit the extradition of terror suspects to the United States. They don’t want to be complicit in an act that will result in individuals being detained in supermax prison where they are cruelly or inhumanely treated.

What Mehanna boldly stated before going to prison may have seemed “disingenuous” to Massachusetts US Attorney Carmen Ortiz. He said, “Trust me. Tarek Mehanna is no Nelson Mandela,” after Mehanna’s statement on how he had transformed into someone concerned with how the US has a history of being an oppressor.

Ortiz may be right, but then the US is no liberator and the liberator-complex, which attorneys, government officials, military officers and politicians operate under has had a toxic effect on not only civil liberties in this country but also Middle Eastern and southeast Asian countries that have suffered since President George W. Bush proclaimed America was at war with “terrorism.”

Read Mehanna’s full statement here.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."