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Public displays in terror trial out

By Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / October 14, 2011

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Supporters of Tarek Mehanna, including family members who have attended his hearings in US District Court in Boston over the last three years, will be restricted from publicly displaying their support for him when Mehanna’s trial on terrorism-related charges begins later this month.

US District Court Judge George A. O’Toole Jr. indicated he would prevent any public signs of support or bias for either the defense or prosecutors in the courtroom when jury selections begin in Mehanna’s case Oct. 24.

Supporters of Mehanna have made their presence in the courtroom clear in recent hearings by wearing “Free Tarek’’ T-shirts, and many of them wear the same yellow ribbons to show their unity.

“I’m concerned it can potentially affect the jurors in ways no one can understand,’’ the judge said, adding of the yellow ribbons, “it’s a small inference . . . that it can be a show of support.’’

However, the judge also asked prosecutors to refrain from using the term “our soldiers’’ when referring to the US military in statements to the jury, a term that Mehanna’s lawyer said could trigger bias as well.

Mehanna, an American citizen from Sudbury, is charged with conspiring to support terrorism and providing material support to terrorists for allegedly trying to serve in the “media wing’’ for Al Qaeda, according to court records.

His long-awaited, high-profile trial, one of the first in the country of its kind, could last as many as seven weeks.

Prosecutors say Mehanna supported Al Qaeda by translating documents promoting violent jihad against Americans into English, and by distributing them on the Internet in accordance with Al Qaeda’s push for the promotion of its propaganda in the West.

Prosecutors also say he traveled to Yemen in search of terrorism training in 2004, and that he decided to serve in the “media wing’’ when that effort failed.

Assistant US Attorney Aloke Chakravarty has said in hearings that the materials Mehanna distributed are the type that incite others to cause violence in the name of jihad, and that Mehanna’s work could have had that same effect and led to the deaths of Americans.

“This is a material support case, this case is about killing people,’’ he said yesterday, adding that the distribution of the materials, “wasn’t in a vacuum.’’

“It was in reaction to those leaders, Al Qaeda leaders who were beckoning people to help them, specifically from the West,’’ he said.

But defense lawyers contend that Mehanna cannot be prosecuted for promoting his own beliefs: an undeniable criticism of US foreign policy in the United States.

They argue he is protected by his First Amendment rights to speech, and that at no point was his work for or at the behest of Al Qaeda.

They also argued that Mehanna’s trip to Yemen was solely for educational purposes.

J.W. Carney Jr., one of Mehanna’s lawyers, said many of the messages Mehanna distributed originated from or were spread by the same so-called “freedom fighters’’ who fought Soviet Union rule in Afghanistan two decades ago - with America’s support.

Carney and prosecutors also battled over what type of evidence can be introduced by experts in the case.

And Carney wants O’Toole to prevent prosecutors from introducing video footage of the deaths of American soldiers in Iraq that was allegedly found on Mehanna’s computer.

Carney said he does not deny that Mehanna argued for the withdrawal of Americans from Iraq and Afghanistan, and that the showing of the video will only inflame the sensationalism of the case.

O’Toole did not make a decision yesterday, indicating he will rule on evidence as the trial proceeds.

But, the judge added, “We will try the indictment as it is, and that will be the scope, that will be the focus of this trial.’’

Mehanna’s supporters did not contest O’Toole’s decision yesterday to restrict their support in the courtroom: Carney said he agreed with the ruling.

However, the supporters, waving signs outside the courthouse said they will still publicly show their support in some way, saying Mehanna is wrongly being prosecuted for his beliefs.

“Being here gives strength both to Tarek and his families, knowing that we are going to continue to be here as this trial goes on,’’ said the Rev. Jason Lydon, a community minister and spokesman for the Tarek Mehanna Support Committee.

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.