Jury selection began in federal court yesterday for the long-awaited trial of Tarek Mehanna, the Sudbury man charged with conspiring to support Al Qaeda.
Dozens of potential jurors were asked whether they had any connection to law enforcement officers or members of the US military. Later, US District Court Judge George A. O’Toole Jr. questioned prospective jurors individually behind closed doors about potential biases.
The individual questioning was meant to preserve jurors’ privacy so they could answer honestly and openly. The details of the discussions were not known, but lawyers for prosecutors and the defense had proposed asking jurors about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and whether they have any family member who has served in the military in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Officials would not say how far along they are in the process, but indicated that they are making progress and that a final jury can probably be empanelled soon, with opening statements occurring as soon as Thursday.
O’Toole questioned close to 50 potential jurors yesterday, and another dozen who were not questioned are expected to return to court today. The judge has summoned an additional 60 potential jurors to the courthouse today, and another 60 will arrive for questioning tomorrow if needed.
The judge hopes to finalize a pool of about 40 before lawyers begin to select a final panel of 12 jurors and four alternates.
Mehanna’s lawyer, J.W. Carney Jr., said yesterday that he was glad O’Toole was being thorough in his questioning of jurors.
“We’re also grateful that the jurors are being very candid in their responses to questions,’’ said Carney. “We are optimistic that we will get a fair and thoughtful jury in the case.’’
At the beginning of the process yesterday morning, O’Toole gave prospective jurors a brief explanation of the case and the charges against Mehanna.
He told them that the trial could last six to eight weeks and that they would be fulfilling a civic obligation by serving on the jury. “Jury service is a serious responsibility,’’ the judge said. “It should not be taken lightly. It is a central tenet to our constitutional system of justice.’’
Mehanna, a 29-year-old American citizen who was born in Pennsylvania and moved to Sudbury when he was 7, faces seven charges of conspiring to support terrorists and lying to investigators.
He allegedly traveled to Yemen in 2004 seeking terrorism training. When he failed in that quest, he returned here committed to serve in the “media wing’’ of Al Qaeda by translating documents promoting violent jihad and distributing them on the Internet, to support the terrorist group’s cause, prosecutors said.
But Mehanna has maintained through his lawyers that his travels to Yemen were for educational research.
He also said that the distribution of materials, no matter how controversial, is protected by his First Amendment right to free speech and that it was not done on behalf of or in partnership with any terrorism group.
Mehanna said he is being prosecuted for stating his beliefs and his opposition to US foreign policy. He has said that federal agents tried to force him to work as an informant within the Muslim community, and that they charged him when he refused.
Mehanna’s younger brother, Tamer, said in a statement yesterday that Mehanna is a devout Muslim who listened to Nirvana in high school and played the guitar and drums and who went on to earn a doctorate from the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.
He said Mehanna is a proud American, but that he never hid his opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I do not share all of Tarek’s political or religious views,’’ said Tamer Mehanna, 27. “But I know this: He has a right to them. And the test for the jury will be whether in America a person can still hold strong views and not be punished for them.’’