The problem with the Tarek Mehanna verdict

On April 12, 2012, in what will inevitably go down as a historic sentencing statement, Tarek Mehanna stated that 4 years ago, he was approached by two federal agents who told him that he had two options; either become an informant for the government or end up in prison on charges of terrorism. Tarek Mehanna refused to become an informant, spent over 4 years in prison awaiting trial without bond, and last week was sentenced to 17.5 years in prison on charges of “conspiracy” and “material support for terrorism”.

Ever since his late teens, Tarek Mehanna, a 29 year old American Muslim pharmacist, has been the victim of FBI surveillance and harassment due to his politically conscious views, outspoken personality, and strong religious beliefs. The prosecution in the case went to great lengths to convince the jury that Mehanna was providing material support for terrorism via translating Arabic text into English, posting content online which also apparently demonstrated sympathy and support for al-Qaida and thus convinced the jury that Mehanna is himself a terrorist and was supporting terrorism.

Throughout the trial, Mehanna’s defense continued to argue that although Tarek has strong religious and political beliefs, he has a right to those beliefs and all of his activities are protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Danios from conducted an analysis of Mehanna’s world views and clarifies that what the prosecution considers as “supporting terrorism” is actually Mehanna supporting another country’s right to defend itself against foreign occupation, hence his sympathy and support for rebel forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Nevertheless, there are serious problems present with the verdict for the Tarek Mehanna case. Mehanna was incarcerated not for what he did but for what he believed and expressed through protected forms of speech. This verdict not only threatens the First Amendment, it also presents a clear double-standard in the way our justice system operates. This double standard is clearly illustrated in comparison to the verdict of the Michigan based Christian militia, the Hutaree, or self-described “Christian warriors.”

In 2008, members of the Hutaree militia, were brought to trial for plotting to overthrow the U.S. government. The FBI secretly planted an informant inside the militia and collected disturbing audio and video footage of members planning to bomb a police station and kill police officers. Not only did the prosecution obtain recorded statements by the Hutaree militia detailing strategic violent statements, there was ample evidence of the possession of ammunition, rifles, alongside video footage of members partaking in military-like training. Despite all of the evidence, audio and video footage, the judge dismissed the serious charges against them, stating that the group expressed hatred of law enforcement and none of the evidence amounted to any kind of conspiracy or action.

In a striking comparison, clearly, the Hutaree verdict presents a serious contradiction to what took place in Tarek Mehanna’s case. Unlike the Hutaree, Mehanna did not participate in any kind of military training, did not possess a gun or any kind of weaponry, and was even unknowingly recorded as stating that “taking up arms against the US would be a violation of Islam since he lived and practiced his religion here”. Despite all of the evidence and lack thereof, the Hutaree were cleared of serious charges based on the First Amendment while Mehanna will unfortunately have to endure almost two decades in prison for his thoughts and beliefs. After Mehanna was sentenced, Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, declared: “It’s official. There is a Muslim exception to the First Amendment.”

This blatant double standard in justice threatens and distorts the judicial process and further demonstrates persecution of a people based on religious beliefs. However, as a nation and as a people we must not be discouraged by a failed court verdict and continue to stand for justice.

As Tarek states in his sentencing statement, “America has historically supported the most unjust policies against its minorities – practices that were even protected by the law – only to look back later and ask: ‘what were we thinking?’ Slavery, Jim Crow, the internment of the Japanese during World War II – each was widely accepted by American society, each was defended by the Supreme Court. But as time passed and America changed, both people and courts looked back and asked ‘What were we thinking?’ Nelson Mandela was considered a terrorist by the South African government, and given a life sentence. But time passed, the world changed, they realized how oppressive their policies were, that it was not he who was the terrorist, and they released him from prison. He even became president. So, everything is subjective – even this whole business of “terrorism” and who is a “terrorist.” It all depends on the time and place and who the superpower happens to be at the moment.”

To read Tarek Mehanna’s highly acclaimed sentencing statement, click here.

Click here to write to Tarek Mehanna. Writing is one of the simplest ways for you to show your support and Tarek appreciates each letter that he receives. Letters from his supporters help to keep his spirits strong while in isolation.

Click here to find out other ways you can help.