Tarek Mehanna, sentenced in Boston to 17 1/2 years in prison for writing al-Qaeda recruitment materials on the Web, told a federal appeals court his conviction and punishment violated free-speech rights.
U.S. District Judge George O’Toole imposed the sentence in April 2012 after Mehanna was convicted by a jury in December 2011 for conspiring to give material support to al-Qaeda. U.S. prosecutors asked for a 25-year prison sentence, charging that he translated terrorist materials from Arabic into English, including a manual titled “39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad,” and had sought to kill U.S. soldiers.
“If one makes a speech, even knowing that its philosophy will be congenial to a foreign terrorist organization, one is engaging in protected activity,” Mehanna’s lawyers said in a brief filed yesterday in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston in reply to a government filing last month.
Mehanna is seeking a reversal of his conviction or a reduction in his sentence. His trial was the highest-profile terrorism case prosecuted by U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz in Boston before the April 15 marathon bombing, which killed three and injured more than 260.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, has been charged with using a weapon of mass destruction in connection with the killings. His brother, Tamerlan, 26, was killed in a shootout with the police. They, like Mehanna, have been identified by prosecutors as radical Islamists.
Federal investigators have said that the brothers learned about making bombs from the online magazine Inspire, which is affiliated with al-Qaeda.
Before his sentencing last year, Mehanna’s lawyers asked for a maximum term of 6 1/2 years, saying in a court filing that it would “promote respect for the law, provide just punishment, afford adequate deterrence and protect the public.”
Prosecutors said Mehanna, a pharmacy-school graduate, traveled to Yemen in 2004 to seek training as a terrorist in order to kill American soldiers in Iraq. After failing to get the training, they said, he edited and translated recruitment materials for al-Qaeda, the organization that planned the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Mehanna’s attorneys said in previous court filings that “no harm occurred to a single individual” as a result of his actions. “Espousing unpopular political views, even the views of al-Qaeda, is not illegal,” they said.
“The evidence amply established that Mehanna engaged in propaganda activities in coordination with, or at the direction of, a foreign terrorist organization,” the U.S. said in its appeal brief last month. “Mehanna was not convicted for any activity protected by the First Amendment.”
At his sentencing, Mehanna was defiant, yelling at Assistant U.S. Attorney Aloke Chakravarty: “You’re a liar! Sit down!” The judge, in response, said he was concerned about the defendant’s “apparent lack of remorse.”
He was also convicted of making false statements, providing material support to a terrorist organization and conspiring to kill in a foreign country.
Mehanna, who lived in Sudbury, Massachusetts, with his family, earned a doctorate from the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Science. His father, Ahmed, emigrated from Egypt in 1981 and is a professor at the college.
Mehanna was hired to set up a pharmaceutical division for diabetes at a medical center in Saudi Arabia, according to court filings. He was arrested in 2008 at Logan International Airport in Boston while attempting to depart to Saudi Arabia.
The appeals case is U.S. v. Mehanna, 12-01461, U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit (Boston). The lower-court case is U.S. v. Mehanna, 09-10017, U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts (Boston).