A defiant Tarek Mehanna was sentenced Thursday to 17 1/2 years in prison for conspiring to kill American soldiers and supporting Al Qaeda, culminating a dramatic terrorism case in which the Sudbury man emphatically professed his devotion to Islam and his anger at America’s support of “unjust policies against its minorities.’’
The 29-year-old Mehanna compared his call for jihad against US soldiers who kill Muslim civilians to America’s Revolutionary War against England. He showed no remorse as he was about to be sentenced in US District Court in Boston, and at one point called a prosecutor a liar.
“It is because of America that I am who I am,’’ he declared.
US District Court Judge George A. O’Toole Jr. said he found Mehanna’s speech to the court Thursday to be evidence of his “strong and magnetic’’ personality, but said he also saw a darker “Jekyll and Hyde’’ side to Mehanna.
“We all do acts, both good and evil, in the course of our life,’’ the judge said. “But just as two wrongs don’t make a right, two rights don’t excuse a wrong, and the wrong still must be punished.’’
The judge said he was disappointed with the show of defiance and “frankly concerned by the defendant’s apparent absence of remorse.’’
At a press conference later, US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz said that Mehanna “faced the consequences of his actions, for conspiring to support terrorists, for conspiring to kill Americans overseas, and for lying to the FBI.’’
The case had nothing to do with Mehanna’s religion or his free speech, she said.
“Our goal is to do justice and do whatever we can to keep the people of this Commonwealth and our country safe,’’ she said. “We are not prosecuting individuals because they are Muslim. We prosecute people because they engage in criminal conduct, [people] who are violent, who are committing crimes.’’
Mehanna had faced life in prison under federal sentencing guidelines; prosecutors asked that he serve at least 25 years.
O’Toole said he considered Mehanna’s depth of family and community support, while balancing the severity and nature of the terrorism charges.
But the slightly lighter sentence did little to dissuade the protests of Mehanna’s supporters, who had turned out in droves during his nine-week trial and who packed the courtroom and an overflow room Thursday.
They gave Mehanna a standing ovation as he was escorted from the courtroom following the sentencing, shouting, “I love you.’’ Outside the court they rallied, wearing yellow ribbons and Free Tarek T-shirts, while shouting, “Free Tarek Now.’’
“It’s an injustice,’’ Mehanna’s father, Ahmed, said outside the courthouse, amid the crowd of supporters. “You are taking him for a large part of his life and putting him in a cage. Is that humane?’’
One of Mehanna’s lawyers, J.W. Carney Jr., said outside the courtroom that Mehanna’s defiance shows that his case has political ramifications.
“When the history of Islam is written, I wonder what impact this speech by Tarek Mehanna will have on future generations,’’ said Carney, who told O’Toole that as a young man he considered joining the Irish Republican Army to fight English oppression.
“I was proud to be sitting next to Tarek Mehanna,’’ Carney said. “He obviously views himself as a leader in the Islamic community and was putting forth how important it is for Muslims to defend other Muslims who are being oppressed or being attacked.’’
Janice Bassil, another of his attorneys, told O’Toole that a juror wanted to speak on behalf of Mehanna, but the judge rejected the request.
Mehanna’s case was the latest in the federal government’s crackdown on so-called home-grown terrorists: Americans who travel to foreign lands seeking training in jihad or to support Al Qaeda.
Prosecutors say Mehanna, who grew up in an Islamic home in a suburb of Boston and earned a doctorate in pharmacology, became a young radical who praised Osama bin Laden and cheered the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. They say he emerged as a leader and traveled to Yemen in 2004 in search of terrorism training, so he could carry out jihad, or holy war, against US soldiers in Iraq. He failed to find a camp, however.
Upon his return, the prosecutors said, he deliberately promoted Al Qaeda’s ideology on the Internet, hoping it would lure others to the cause. He posted documents and videos glorifying suicide bombings and jihad and translated Al Qaeda-promoted documents, including “39 Ways to Make and Participate in Jihad.’’
“It’s the perverted interpretation of a great faith to motivate other people to take up arms against’’ the United States, said Assistant US Attorney Aloke Chakravarty. “The crimes the defendant has been convicted of are among the most significant in the criminal justice system. When you inspire others to take up arms against your country, it deserves penalties.’’
Mehanna had long maintained that his two-week trip to Yemen was for educational purposes. He does not deny promoting controversial material, but said it was his First Amendment-protected views opposing US foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. And he has sought to draw a line between his support of mujahideen, or holy warriors, and the indiscriminate killing of civilians attributed to groups like Al Qaeda.
Much of his support stemmed from his assertion that he was threatened with prosecution for his refusal to be an informant, which federal officials deny.
Prosecutors said he makes himself out to be a martyr.
But in his lengthy, emphatic address to the judge, in which he said he wanted to introduce himself, Mehanna denied that he was a terrorist.
He said his anger at the historic struggles of Muslims was based on the lessons of oppression he found in paradigms in his readings, from the Batman stories he read as a child to the struggles of Malcolm X and the suffering of Native Americans. He spoke of the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela in South Africa and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. He said he found the same oppression of Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Throughout history there has been a constant struggle between the oppressed and the oppressor,’’ he said. “I found myself consistently siding with the oppressed.’’
At one point, he held up a photo of an Iraqi girl who was raped by US soldiers, who murdered her parents and burned her house to cover up the crime.
“How can someone not be angry when they hear something like that?’’ he said. “Hundreds of Muslims were killed and maimed by the United States. Yet, somehow I’m the one standing here because I support the mujahideen, who are defending these people.’’