At the sentencing of Tarek Mehanna, an Egyptian American from suburban Boston convicted of traveling to Yemen in search of terror camps and translating Jihadist documents online, the judge, prosecution and defense all agreed on one thing: this case was fundamentally different than other terror cases that came before it.
Likewise, the sentencing hearing itself was far from ordinary.
First of all, this convicted terrorist has a huge fan base. At the sentencing on April 12 at the Moakley Federal Courthouse in Boston, the courtroom was packed with Tarek Mehanna supporters, many of whom had traveled hundreds of miles to attend the hearing. They stood respectfully when Mehanna entered and, when he was escorted out, several yelled, “We love you Tarek!” This is not normal. At most criminal sentencing hearings, the defendant is lucky if his mom shows up.
U.S. District Judge George A. O’Toole opened by acknowledging that sentencing Mehanna posed novel challenges, because of the complexity of the case and the fact that terrorism crimes are a recent and evolving area of law. The official sentencing guidelines for Mehanna’s crimes were extraordinarily severe, due to a series of terrorism enhancements that have been created over the last decade. For instance, one of these automatic terrorism enhancements would consider Mehanna a career criminal, even though in reality he doesn’t have a record. And, since several of these terrorism statutes are new, there have been few sentences handed down. The standards have not really been set. The judge said off the bat that he would not hand down what the guidelines suggested: a life sentence. “This will be a sentence in years,” he said.
The U.S. prosecutors also argued that this case was unique, and said that for that very reason the sentence should be substantial — it would send a message to others who would champion violent extremism that they could pay a heavy price. They called Mehanna a “rare individual” who carried on with his online activities even when his co-conspirators were arrested. They said that he refused to provide the government with information and therefore protected other terrorists. They claimed that this “obstruction of justice” left dangerous terrorists out of reach. “There’s nothing wrong with soliciting people in the community to testify against fellow Muslims if it’s going to keep Americans safe,” said federal prosecutor Aloke Chakravarty. Prosecutors recommended a 25-year sentence.
Likewise, the defense argued that Mehanna’s case deserved special treatment, in the opposite direction, challenging the idea that Mehanna was ever a threat. Defense attorney Jay Carney opened by saying that the prosecution had made clear that it “doesn’t want the defendant punished for what he did, but punished for the statements he made, punished for taking the case to trail, punished for not being an informant.” He attacked the prosecution for basing their case on speech that was protected by the First Amendment. And Carney pointed out that Mehanna was 21 years old when he went to Yemen, and argued that it’s not uncommon for young people to see the world in black and white. Carney even admitted, “When I was that age I hated the British and considered joining the IRA. I know that feeling.” But, Carney argued, Mehanna had matured beyond those views. Carney asked the judge to sentence Mehanna to 6.5 years in prison.
Finally, it was Mehanna’s chance to speak. He didn’t continue along the argument his attorney had laid out. He did not claim his actions were youthful indulgence and pointedly did not express remorse for his actions. Instead, he offered an indictment of the trial itself and the war on terror at large.
He acknowledged that many don’t understand how an American can come to believe the things he does, but he said, “in more ways than one, it’s because of America that I am who I am.”
He began by describing the comic book collection he had when he was six. “Batman implanted a concept in my mind,” Mehanna said, “introduced me to a paradigm as to how the world is set up: that there are oppressors, there are the oppressed, and there are those who step up to defend the oppressed. This resonated with me so much that throughout the rest of my childhood, I gravitated towards any book that reflected that paradigm — ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X,’ and I even saw an ethical dimension to ‘The Catcher in the Rye’.”
And when he became a devout Muslim as a teenager, his advocacy on the part of the oppressed became more personal. “I learned what the Soviets had done to the Muslims of Afghanistan,” he said. “I learned what the Serbs had done to the Muslims of Bosnia. I learned what the Russians were doing to the Muslims of Chechnya … And I learned what America itself was doing to Muslims.”
Mehanna turned the trial on its head, asking the judge to consider who really were the victims in this case. “This trial was not about my position on Muslims killing American civilians. It was about my position on Americans killing Muslim civilians, which is that Muslims should defend their lands from foreign invaders — Soviets, Americans, or Martians,” he said.
He concluded by saying that he, like Nelson Mandela, who was also considered a terrorist, would be vindicated by history.
His father, Dr. Ahmed Mehanna, said that he was surprised, and proud, of his son’s remarks. “He wouldn’t let anyone read or edit his comments,” he said. “Not even his lawyers.”
After Mehanna spoke, Chakravarty stood up to contest some of the statements he had made about the FBI, and Mehanna yelled at him to “sit down” and called him a “liar.”
After a 15 minute break, the judge returned and said that Mehanna had proved that he was the charismatic and articulate leader that prosecutors had argued he was, and said his defiance would affect his sentence. “I am frankly concerned by the defendant’s apparent absence of remorse, notwithstanding the jury’s verdict,” O’Toole said.
He sentenced him to seventeen and a half years in prison, plus seven years of probation.