Lawyers for a Massachusetts man accused of conspiring to provide support to al-Qaida asked Wednesday that he be released on bail while he awaits trial, arguing that the case against him is "paper thin" and based on anti-American statements he made in instant messages protected by the First Amendment.
Tarek Mehanna has been held without bail since October 2009 on charges including conspiring to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization, al-Qaida.
Prosecutors say Mehanna conspired with two other men to kill American troops in Iraq, assassinate two unnamed U.S. politicians and shoot shoppers in U.S. malls. Authorities have said Mehanna and the other men never came close to pulling off an attack but unsuccessfully sought training at terrorist camps in the Middle East.
During a hearing Wednesday in federal court in Boston, Mehanna's lawyers argued that he is not dangerous and should be released on bail.
Janice Bassil, one of Mehanna's lawyers, argued that the government built its case against Mehanna mainly on a series of instant messages he sent in 2006. Bassil said Mehanna expressed his opposition to U.S. involvement in the Middle East, particularly the war in Iraq, and made statements about his admiration for Osama bin Laden. But Bassil said the messages do not show that Mehanna ever planned to try to kill anyone.
"He said things in instant messages that were crass, crude and sometimes just plain stupid, and those, too, are protected by the First Amendment," Bassil said.
Judge George O'Toole Jr. did not immediately rule on the bail request.
Prosecutors argued that Mehanna should continue to be held without bail because he is still considered a flight risk.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Aloke Chakravarty noted that Mehanna was arrested in 2008 as he was about to board a flight to Saudi Arabia. He was charged then with lying to federal authorities about the whereabouts of a man suspected of training at an al-Qaida camp in Somalia. He was released on bail and remained free for nearly a year, when he was ordered held without bail after authorities added the more serious charge of conspiring to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization.
Chakravarty said Mehanna faces a possible sentence of life in prison if convicted.
"His motive to flee the country is much greater than it was back in `08," he said.
Chakravarty said Mehanna traveled to Yemen to seek training in a terrorist camp and supported al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations by translating and distributing videos and textbooks intended to encourage others to participate in violent jihad. He said Mehanna, though unsuccessful, committed a crime by being part of a conspiracy to provide support to a terrorist organization.
"The crime here is the agreement and the intent, it's not the success," he said.
Mehanna's lawyers, however, said Mehanna planned to go to Saudi Arabia in 2008 to start a new job as a pharmacist. Bassil said he went to Yemen to seek "religious study."
Bassil said Mehanna was born in the United States and grew up in Sudbury, a wealthy Boston suburb.
Mehanna has dual American and Egyptian citizenship.