(Updates with defense statement in sixth paragraph.)
Oct. 27 (Bloomberg) -- A pharmacy-school graduate from Massachusetts provided support to Muslim terrorists by promoting holy war online, prosecutors said at the opening of a trial in Boston federal court.
Tarek Mehanna, 29, became an online operative for al-Qaeda after traveling to Yemen for terrorist training in 2004, prosecutors alleged. They have claimed no acts of violence or attempted violence or terrorism by Mehanna, whose lawyers said the office of U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz is violating their client’s right to free speech under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Aloke Chakravarty told the jury today in his opening statement that Mehanna responded to a call from Osama bin Laden to pursue jihad, or holy war.
“This case is about how this man answered that call,” the prosecutor said. “In the course of the next 10 years, he tried and tried again to provide what the judge has just told you is called material support to al-Qaeda and other terrorists.”
Mehanna translated terrorist materials from Arabic into English, including an al-Qaeda manual called “39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad,” according to prosecutors. They also said he gave false statements to government agents about his reasons for going to Yemen.
“Tarek Mehanna believed he could express those views because he thought he was doing so through the freedom granted by the First Amendment,” J.W. Carney, a lawyer for Mehanna, said in his opening statement to the jury. “He didn’t hide his beliefs. He wore them on his sleeve.”
Mehanna, who earned a doctorate from the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Science, was arrested at his home in Sudbury, Massachusetts, in October 2009.
He was charged with seven counts, including making false statements, conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist organization and conspiracy to kill in a foreign country. Mehanna, who pleaded not guilty in November 2009, could be imprisoned for life if convicted, prosecutors said.
The jury will hear recordings of Mehanna made by a cooperating witness and wiretaps of his phone conversations, the government has said. A jury of seven men and nine women, including alternates, was selected today.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation said Mehanna and his friend Ahmed Abousamra, who met at a local mosque when they were boys, discussed a plot to shoot shoppers at a mall, abandoning the plan after they failed to obtain weapons. Mehanna isn’t charged in connection with that plot. Abousamra is a fugitive.
Carney told the jurors today that Mehanna’s response to the shopping-mall idea was, “Oh, come on. That’s ridiculous.”
Prosecutors said yesterday they will show jurors a video promoting jihad in which Mehanna translated statements by bin Laden and added English subtitles.
Mehanna’s attorneys objected to the use of images of bin Laden, who was killed in a U.S. military raid in Pakistan in May, and of photos of Mehanna at Ground Zero after the World Trade Center attacks.
U.S. District Judge George O’Toole said he will allow the display of the images and photos, as well as a photo supplied by the defense of Mehanna with someone dressed as Santa Claus.
Supporters of Mehanna organized a campaign of calls to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston to say he was being harassed by the government for his refusal to become an informant.
Mehanna’s father, Ahmed, emigrated from Egypt in the 1970s and is a professor at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy.
Tarek Mehanna’s brother, Tamer, in an interview during jury selection this week, said, “I do not share all of Tarek’s political or religious views, but I know that he has a right to have them.”
The trial may last six to eight weeks, according to the judge.
The case is U.S. v. Mehanna, 09-10017, U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts (Boston).
--Editors: Charles Carter, Andrew Dunn
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