Terrorism Defendant Argues Free Speech Defense

Opening statements began Thursday in the trial of a Massachusetts man accused, among other things, of distributing propaganda for al-Qaida on his blog. Prosecutors say 29-year-old Tarek Mehanna became an online operative for al-Qaida after he was unable to get into a terrorist training camp in Yemen. The defense says Mehanna, who is an American, was just exercising his right to free speech. While that kind of defense is unusual in terrorism trials, there is a 2004 case in Idaho that suggests a First Amendment defense could be a winning strategy.

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Opening statements began today in the trial of a Massachusetts man who stands accused, among other things, of distributing al-Qaida propaganda on his blog. Prosecutors told a jury that 29-year-old Tarek Mehanna was an online operative for al-Qaida. The defense insists Mehanna was just a young American venting about the Iraq War, speech that is protected by the First Amendment.

Here's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: To hear prosecutors tell it, Tarek Mehanna supported al-Qaida when he translated one of its handbooks from Arabic into English. He also put English subtitles on a speech by Osama bin Laden and posted it online. Of course, lots of news organizations do more or less the same thing.

DAVID NEVIN: CNN probably still has on its website an al-Qaida instructional video.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's attorney David Nevin. He's talking about that video that's aired repeatedly over the years of al-Qaida operatives swinging on monkey bars and running through an obstacle course at a training camp.

NEVIN: And the same would be true of interviews with Osama bin Laden where he advocates killing Americans wherever he can find them. And ABC broadcast that on their website and on television stations all over the world. Is that permitted? Is that a crime? Well, of course not.

TEMPLE-RASTON: David Nevin is uniquely placed to talk about the Mehanna case. That's because back in 2004 he handled a similar case. He defended a University of Idaho college student. The student had volunteered his computer skills to a local Muslim charity. He ran their website.

Prosecutors said that buried deep in that website were violent messages that encouraged attacks on the U.S. They charged the student with providing material support to a terrorist organization. Essentially, he was lending his expertise to keep the website running. It was a very public, highly charged case.

Again, attorney David Nevin.

NEVIN: Like everyone else, I understood what I was told and what the media was told at the time. And it was only later that it became clear that there was really nothing at all behind it. There was never any allegation that he had said anything that supported terrorism. But even if he had, it's not a crime to do that.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Nevin argued that the First Amendment protected speech on the website. His client, the student, was acquitted of the terrorism charges against him, which brings us to today's case in Boston.

Tarek Mehanna's attorneys say that the First Amendment protects him too. That defense is one reason why he's getting enormous support. Occupy Boston protesters showed up in the courtroom today, and there have been hip-hop and rap songs written about the case. There was even a flash mob in Boston earlier this month dancing to one of the songs about him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Set him free. Set him free. Free Tarek Mehanna. Stop this racist drama. He is being framed. Set him free. Set him free.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The flash mob dancers only numbered in the dozens. It was mostly white college kids wearing pink T-shirts that read Free Tarek on the front. But this isn't the sort of thing that typically happens in a terrorism case.

Now, Mehanna isn't just on trial just because of his blog. Prosecutors also say that he had conspired to shoot up a local shopping mall. And they told jurors that they will play wiretap tapes that will reveal the details of that plot. Mehanna is also accused of lying to the FBI. That means even if he wins the day on First Amendment grounds, there are other charges that could be harder to beat.

The trial is expected to last six to eight weeks. Mehanna faces up to life in prison if convicted.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

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