The Feds put Islam on trial

Jenin Juffri reports on developments in the federal government's case against Muslim American pharmacist Tarek Mehanna--and the response of activists.

Tarek Mehanna with his mother (freetarek.wordpress.com)Tarek Mehanna with his mother (freetarek.wordpress.com)

IN THE same week that Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), sending it to Barack Obama to enshrine into law a provision allowing indefinite military detention of U.S. citizens, a federal jury in Boston delivered a guilty verdict against Dr. Tarek Mehanna, a Muslim American pharmacist charged with material support for terrorism.

Coming in the wake of other Muslims around the country who have been arrested, accused of supporting terrorism, and locked up for long sentences, the December 20 guilty verdict against Mehanna on seven counts was a shocking and chilling reminder to his growing number of supporters and advocates that the "war on terror" has been putting Islam on trial for years.

Tarek's trial lasted nine weeks, but was the culmination of four years of FBI harassment, surveillance and intimidation against Mehanna from his days in pharmacy school.

In 2005, recognizing him as a respected leader within his community and a potential asset for the federal government in its spying and surveillance of Muslims, the FBI approached Tarek to act as an informant within his community. After Tarek refused to betray members of his community, he was subjected to harassment and surveillance of his online activities, including participation in online forums vocalizing his opposition to U.S. wars in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Mehanna was initially arrested in 2008 on the charge of making a false statement to the FBI, and when no case could be made to keep him in prison or prove he was a danger to the public, he was released with a restrictive bail arrangement.

In October 2009, after Tarek had graduated from pharmacy school and was ready to board a plane for a prestigious job in Saudi Arabia, federal agents arrested him a second time and charged him with providing material support to al-Qaeda.

The government presented nothing but an FBI affidavit to the court as evidence and fed the media with vicious accusations that Tarek had plotted to shoot up a mall--a charge that wasn't even included in its case. Tarek spent another two years in solitary confinement before the trial even began. He was under 23-hour lockdown with little human contact, which is recognized internationally as a form of torture.

While Tarek languished in prison for over 700 days, the government revealed during the trial that it only began analyzing the online evidence it was preparing against Tarek three months before, in August 2011. The charges would hinge on whether or not Tarek's translation of an Arabic book widely available on the Internet constituted providing aid to al-Qaeda.

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THE FEDERAL government began its opening statement by playing a video of Osama bin Laden while prosecutor Aloke Chakravarty dramatically jabbed his finger at Tarek, declaring he answered bin Laden's call to arms against the U.S. and that he watched videos to "satisfy his desire to kill."

The government produced thousands of pages of chat messages as evidence, along with the testimony of several FBI agents and informants who took the stand. Supporters of Tarek who filled the courtroom every day had to muffle their snorts at the comical ineptness of the government's witnesses.

Evan Kohlmann, the FBI's "expert" on terrorism and the media, as well as a regular commentator on NBC News and before Congress, admitted he didn't know a word of Arabic, Urdu, Farsi or Pashto, and had never traveled to Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon or Pakistan. But he did say he had "a degree in Islam."

Under cross-examination, Thomas Sarrouf, a state trooper who had been assigned to the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force, admitted he couldn't read the Arabic lettering on the Saudi Arabian flag, even though he was supposedly able to identify terrorism-related Arabic materials during the raid on Tarek's home while the Mehanna family was on vacation in Egypt.

Veera Boonyasait, an intelligence analyst for the FBI, testified that he'd memorized several usernames on the online Tibyan forum, which was monitored, and said he'd read several passages of the text Tarek was accused of translating to aid al-Qaeda, "39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad." But he had no idea who wrote the text, when it was written, or the fact that most of it was quotes taken from the Koran and the Prophet Muhammad.

One cooperating witness who'd never met Tarek accurately listed several of the usernames used by Tarek and his friends, but couldn't remember one of his own. The most revealing testimony came from the people Tarek befriended, who later cooperated with the FBI against him, under threat of deportation or offers of reduced sentences, in a pattern played out in case after case around the country.

Hassan Massood is a stark example. Massood was neither a U.S. citizen nor permanent resident. On November 14, he took the stand as a witness for two familiar faces in the room, FBI prosecutors Chakravarty and Jeffrey Auerhahn, who had deported his father on charges of immigration fraud, and approached him with an offer after his own appeal to stay in the U.S. was denied.

In an interview on NPR's "All Things Considered," Tarek's brother Tamer explained:

On the one hand, my family and all of the supporters who've been attending the trial, of course, we all believe Tarek is innocent. But at the same time, the prevailing climate is what it is--the political climate. So we're not entirely surprised the jury came back with these verdicts. But what we weren't expecting was seven guilty verdicts. That was a shock to us.

Islam was on trial from the first day, when the government aired the video of bin Laden. Judge George O'Toole's bias in favor of the government was evident. He allowed hundreds of photos and al-Qaeda videos into evidence that had nothing to do with Tarek, but rejected the defense's attempt to submit video clips of former President Ronald Reagan praising as freedom fighters the mujahideen who fought against the USSR invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s and were funded by the CIA.

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TAREK'S SENTENCING is scheduled for April 12, 2012, and the struggle for his freedom continues under appeal.

Years of vitriolic Islamophobia from the media, hate groups and the government, fed by endless war and racism, has ensured that no Muslim in America could ever be judged by a jury of their peers--unless a mass movement against racism, war and Islamophobia challenges the status quo.

The solidarity that activists, students and community members around Boston built for Tarek over the past years was on display from the first week of the trial until the last day. Tarek's brother Tamer spoke to more than 2,000 people at Occupy Boston during the October 15 demonstration against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Organizers at the Boston Palestine Film Festival announced Tarek's trial date on opening night and urged attendees to stand up for him in court. During a speaking engagement at a Cambridge bookstore to promote her new book, feminist author and activist Jaclyn Friedman gave time to activists who told the audience about Tarek and why they needed to stand in solidarity with him.

On October 24, some 40 people rallied at Occupy Boston in the pouring rain and marched to the Moakley Federal Courthouse, chanting, "We are the 99 percent! Tarek is the 99 percent!" and "Judge O'Toole, just face it! This whole trial is racist!" They were joined by hundreds of other supporters who packed the courtroom and another overflow room.

During an FBI recruiting fair at a mosque in Wayland, Mass., members of the Tarek Mehanna Support Committee interrogated U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz on the FBI practice of using informants with previous histories of criminal backgrounds or drug offenses to spy on Muslims in their mosques.

The fight for freedom for Tarek and all the others victimized by the government's "war on terror" hysteria needs to continue.

As the Obama administration threatens Iran with war and expands its occupations, surveillance, detentions, targeted assassinations and rendition programs to silence dissent, it's more necessary than ever to build a movement challenging the scapegoating of Muslims in this country.

The Occupy movement that was inspired by the struggles of the Arab Spring needs to take up the oppression of Arabs and Muslims as its own struggle. And the movement that breathed the same tear gas of state repression suffered by their brothers and sisters in Egypt, Syria and Iran will have to continue to challenge the Islamophobia at home that U.S. military hegemony depends on.