Troubling Questions Remain in the Aftermath of Mehanna’s Conviction

By Najah Farley

In the wake of Tarek Mehanna’s conviction on April 12, 2012, I think that many progressive attorneys must have considerable questions about prosecutions for aiding and abetting terrorism and freedom of speech. Mehanna was convicted of terrorism charges and sentenced to 17 ½ years in prison. Based on the prosecution’s evidence, Mehanna went to Yemen on a training trip and when he returned translated Al Qaeda promotional material and posted videos glorifying suicide bombings and violence. These actions amounted to “material support” for terrorists, according to prosecutors.

A number of civil liberties groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have decried the decision. The Boston Globe reported that Carol Rose, the executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts stated that the case showed that there is a “Muslim exception to the First Amendment.” Mehanna’s sentencing statement was chilling in its indictment of the United States government, and its complicity in numerous killings in predominantly Muslim countries. It also spoke of being forced to choose between being a government informant and facing prosecution. Mehanna chose “the hard way,” as he explains.

What does it mean that translating materials now counts as “material support for terrorism”? Although the concept is not novel, it is clear that this is a new interpretation, it could have far-reaching effects, as the definition of “material support” affects asylum, issues of charitable contributions and technology related issues as well. If translation of materials that are objectionable can lead to prosecution for material support for terrorism, what other arenas possibly constitute terrorism? What other groups are possibly under scrutiny for domestic terrorism? Will their members also be subject to possible prosecution under this rubric? Only time will tell how far the Government will go in arguing this definition and how much more far-reaching the implications will be.


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