BOSTON – A Massachusetts man convicted of conspiring to help al-Qaida was sentenced Thursday to 17 1/2 years in prison after giving an impassioned speech in which he declared his love for Islam and predicted one day his trial would be viewed differently.
Tarek Mehanna, 29, an American who grew up in the wealthy Boston suburb of Sudbury, was found guilty in December of traveling to Yemen to seek training in a terrorist camp with the intention of going on to Iraq to fight U.S. soldiers there. Prosecutors said that when that plan failed, Mehanna returned to the United States and began translating and disseminating materials online promoting violent jihad.
"In your eyes I'm a terrorist. I'm the only one standing here in an orange jumpsuit," Mehanna said in U.S. District Court in Boston. He later added: "America will change and recognize this trial for what it is."
Mehanna was sentenced on four terror-related charges and three counts of lying to authorities. His family and supporters gave him a standing ovation and called out "we love you" as he was led from the courtroom.
During the sentencing hearing, Mehanna gave a sweep of history and compared the suffering experienced by Muslims at the hands of Americans to the oppression inflicted on American colonists by the British. He mentioned Paul Revere, Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela, among others, and said he came to appreciate the plight of the oppressed against their oppressors as a 6-year-old boy reading comic books.
At times, he held up the picture of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl who had been raped by an American soldier and asked how anyone could not be angry about something like that.
"This is not terrorism. It's self-defense," he said.
Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz called Mehanna's remarks "disingenuous" and said he came across as angry and defiant.
"Trust me. Tarek Mehanna is no Nelson Mandela," Ortiz said.
Mehanna also suggested he was approached about becoming a government informant, recounting how he was told he had "to make a choice" during an encounter he had four years ago while leaving a hospital where he was working.
"I could do things the easy way or I could do things the hard way," Mehanna recalled being told. He later added: "The hard way is what you see before you."
As Assistant U.S. Attorney Aloke S. Chakravarty offered a rebuttal at the conclusion of Mehanna's remarks, Mehanna called him a liar and told him to sit down. The judge then called a recess.
Ortiz said there's no evidence that Mehanna was approached about becoming an informant.
U.S. District Court Judge George A. O'Toole Jr. said Mehanna had become consumed with his religion in a way that was both admirable and horrifying.
"I'm frankly concerned about the defendant's apparent absence of remorse," O'Toole said.
Mehanna had faced up to life in prison under federal sentencing guidelines.
Prosecutors asked for a 25-year prison sentence, saying he lived a "double life," appearing as a "dutiful and scholarly young man" to his family and community, but in reality, he "was a proponent of violence as a means of achieving political goals." Chakravarty lodged an objection to the 17 1/2-year sentence imposed by O'Toole.
Defense lawyers sought a maximum sentence of 6 1/2 years. The defense says it plans to appeal Mehanna's conviction.
"It was hypocritical in my opinion for the government to characterize Tarek as such a dangerous man to the United States," said defense attorney J.W. Carney Jr.
He recounted how federal authorities monitored Mehanna for years without arresting him.
"They knew he was not a danger by what he would do. He was only a threat because of what he would say," Carney said.
The defense has said Mehanna never did receive terrorist training and described his trip to Yemen at the age of 21 as "entirely unsophisticated."
During the trial, Mehanna's attorneys portrayed him as an aspiring scholar of Islam who traveled to Yemen to look for religious schools. They said his translation and distribution of controversial publications was free speech protected by the First Amendment.
Mehanna's father, Ahmed, said he is angry upset.
"Translating a book? Is that a crime?" he asked.
Defense attorney Janice Bassil told O'Toole during the sentencing hearing that a juror wanted to address the court, but the judge refused to let the juror speak. Carney said the juror is troubled by the verdict and does not think Mehanna should serve any more time in prison.
Prosecutors focused on hundreds of online chats on Mehanna's computer in which they said he and his friends talked about their desire to participate in jihad, or holy war. Several of those friends were called by prosecutors to testify against Mehanna, including one man who said he, Mehanna and a third friend tried to get terrorism training in Yemen so they could fight American soldiers in Iraq.