Tarek Mehanna is a Muslim who opposes U.S. policies in Iraq and Afghanistan. He wasn’t quiet about it: he translated some Al Qaeda materials into English and posted his translations online. He downloaded videos. He emailed his friends. He travelled to Yemen. Most egregiously perhaps, Mehanna refused to become an informant for the FBI.
None of those things are illegal, yet Mehanna was convicted of material support of terrorism and sentenced to 17 ½ years in prison in April 2011. An appeals court recently upheld the verdict.
Mehanna was not convicted for doing anything, and he was not found to have any direct link to al Qaeda. His conviction rests what he read, watched, translated and wrote. That trip to Yeman? Prosecutors argued he intended to attend a terrorist training camp (although they admit he didn’t actually attend one). The Appeals Court reasoned that all this, taken together indicated that Mehanna intended to materially support terrorism, although he never did anything.
The Mehanna verdict is exactly what we feared when the Supreme Court endorsed a broad definition of material support in their 2010 Humanitarian Law Project decision, to include pure speech. Even before the HLP decision, material support charges were a handy catchall for people who could not be convicted of more specific crimes. In an insightful column in the Boston Globe, Harvey Silverglate and Juliana DeVries note that “Material support” is now a top contender for the American equivalent of the Soviet (now Russian) “hooliganism” statute, a notoriously vague criminal law that enabled the imprisonment of any opponent of dictator Josef Stalin’s regime. “Show me the man and I’ll find you the crime” was secret police chief Lavrenti Beria’s mantra to his boss”.
Fortunately, the Humanitarian Assistance Facilitation Act takes on the broad interpretation of material support, and proposes language to narrow the law. Read more about the bill and take action here.