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Khairullozhon Matanov: Mehanna, harrassment, and the reasons why

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Khairullozhon Matanov
(image by CBS Boston)


Khairullozhon Matanov, 23 years of age, whom investigators say was close friends with Tamerlan Tsarnaer, was nervous and shaking as he made a brief appearance in federal court Friday.

The Kyrgyzstani national is charged with one count of destroying, altering, and falsifying records, documents, and tangible objects in a federal investigation, specifically information on his computer, and three counts of making materially false, fictitious, and fraudulent statements in a federal terrorism investigation.

He will appear again on June 4 2014 for a bail hearing.

The case against Matanov

According to the indictment Matanov called Tamerlan 42 minutes after the bombs exploded on April 15, 2013, and treated Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to dinner later on the same day. He also placed numerous calls to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, although the calls were never connected.

Matanov later told a witness he thought the bombings "may have had a just reason, such as in the name of Islam, and that he would support the bombings if the reason were just and the victims had gone to paradise."


He continued to express his support for the bombings in the days following the attack, but later that week remarked "maybe the bombings were wrong," although he still tried to explain away the significance of the victims' deaths on the grounds "that everyone must die eventually," prosecutors said.

Matanov participated in a variety of activities with Tsarnaev, including "discussing religious topics and hiking up a New Hampshire mountain in order to train like and praise the mujaheddin."

US attorney Carmen Ortiz said he was motivated by the fact that he shared similar 'extremist' ideological views to Tamerlan Tsarnaev and knew the FBI would want to talk to him about their relationship.

In contrast, neighbours and members of Matanov's local mosque described him as likable and hardworking and said there was never any indication he held extremist views. This sentiment was echoed by Edward Hayden, the attorney representing Matanov, who said, "He's terrified. He's not a terrorist. He wasn't trying to help the Tsarnaevs. He's going to contest these charges."

Ed Davis weighs in

After the hearing Former Boston Police Commissioner Davis, the current WBZ TV security analyst, called the arrest "the most significant development to come out of this incident since the initial arrests," despite the admission Matanov knew nothing about the bombings in advance, was not involved in any planning, and never assisted the Tsarnaevs in any way.

Precisely how this can be viewed as a 'significant development' remains unclear. Davis went on to say, "I'm sure it's not lost on the prosecutors that if this kid had called police with what he knew (earlier), Sean Collier would still be alive."

He omitted the fact that hundreds of others who recognized or knew the Tsarnaevs were in the same position as Matanov following the FBI's photographic appeal and that he, like those, only knew the true identity of the suspects as a result of that request for assistance.

His remark also implies the responsibility for apprehending suspects no longer falls to law enforcement, but to the public at large when they are asked for help. While cooperation from the public is desirous, will prosecutors be indicting others for their failure to act immediately, or blaming them for the death of Sean Collier too?

'Deliberate obstruction' that impeded nothing

US attorneys paint a picture of a dangerous, misguided individual who deliberately set out to obstruct the FBI because he held 'extremist' views and was loyal to Tamerlan Tsarnaev. How serious was that obstruction and how did it impede investigators?

The evidence Matanov allegedly disposed of consisted of a 'high number' of searches on his computer about the attack and content related to the FBI's release of the photographs of the suspects on April 18, 2013 - the same content that would have been present on the computers of thousands of other Americans too.

There is no suggestion Matanov ever possessed material evidence implicating the Tsarnaevs that he later discarded, but the fact that he deleted innocent content prior to speaking to the FBI, means he was charged accordingly. Unsurprisingly, how long citizens are expected to retain innocent information in the event the FBI may wish to access it has never been clarified.

The indictment states this impeded the Marathon bombing investigation as Matanov's computer had to be searched forensically - but as it contained no information pertinent to the investigation the obstruction charge remains a mystery.

On several occasions Matanov is said to have asked acquaintances to take his phones as "they were illegal and he was frightened they might be found by the FBI if they searched his apartment." The acquaintances (now witnesses) all refused and his request was denied - yet Matanov was still charged with obstruction even though the request itself did not impede the investigation and no evidence implicating the Tsarnaevs was ever found on his phones.

The 'cover -up' that concealed a friendship

According to prosecutors, on the morning of April 19, 2013, Matanov was 'visibly upset' when he told a witness he knew the bombing suspects in the FBI's photographic release from several hours earlier. He indicated the same to two other witnesses, one of whom accompanied him to a local police station where Matanov first spoke to authorities.

Matanov explained to a detective he knew the Tsarnaevs and handed over phone numbers for the brothers. He provided information on their places of worship and other "details," but denied seeing the photographs and did not tell detectives about his recent contact with them.

In the weeks that followed Matanov continued to distance himself from Tsarnaev, lied about his contact with him, and attempted to "cover-up" the extent of their friendship, the federal indictment said.

Investigators said he was "deliberately misleading", which impeded their investigation into the Marathon bombings, although again, there no no suggestion the information Matanov withheld would have had any meaningful impact on the investigation itself.

Matanov's lawyer called the allegations against him unsubstantiated and remarked "he had no intent to mislead the FBI, and from what I can see, what he said and did didn't impede the investigation."

To understand how a man like Matanov may have ended up in the situation he did it is necessary to take a closer look at the way the government aggressively prosecutes cases in its 'war on terror.'

Shades of Mehanna and the 'thought police'

In 2011 Tarek Mehanna was convicted by a Boston jury of providing material support to al Qaeda, conspiring to provide material support to terrorists, and conspiring to kill in a foreign country.

Mehanna was vocal about his belief that Muslims living in Muslim-majority countries had a right to defend themselves against foreign occupation and openly discussed the merits of the mujaheddin.

He translated what prosecutors described as "al Qaeda propaganda materials" and posted them online, while engaging in religious and political debate through the medium of instant messages, e-mails, and web postings.

His conviction was controversial as it undermined the First Amendment right to free speech, which, incorporating the ban on material support for the terrorism statute, states:

"speech turns into material support only when it is engaged at the behest, under the control or through direct engagement with a terrorist group"

Prosecutors presented no evidence that Mehenna acted at al Qaeda's request, or even that he ever met or communicated with anyone from a designated 'terrorist group.' The only thing the government successfully proved was that it was now possible to criminalize the sorts of speech it found objectionable - anyone who voiced religious or political opinions that did not fit in with the government's preferred rhetoric was fair game.

The parallels with Khairullozhon Matanov's 'objectionable speech' could not be more obvious.

According to Mehanna, in 2004 he traveled with a friend to Yemen for Islamic studies and to advance his understanding of his faith. The government argued the visit was to "engage in jihadi training from which he would then proceed to Iraq to fight American nationals." Prosecutors accepted there was evidence indicating his trip was indeed for scholarly pursuits - but still continued to push the jihad theory, despite being forced to admit there were no terrorist-training camps in Yemen in 2004, and never providing any evidence Mehanna ever found one.

Instead they repeatedly played videos depicting the 9/11 attacks and footage of US military convoys being blown up in Iraq, none of which were related to Mehanna. They then produced evidence that Mehanna consumed "more than thirty propaganda video clips," arguing that since his crimes were "ideological" the media was "integral" to the crimes with which he was charged.

Similarly, Khairullozhon Matanov is said to have possessed "some files that contained violent content or calls to violence". He allegedly deleted the files but were subsequently recovered. Prosecutors argue Matanov discarded the content in order to mask the extent to which he shared the suspected bombers' "philosophical justification for violence, among other topics of interest."

Amna Akbar, a Visiting Assistant Professor at The Ohio State University, said of Mehanna's trial:

"It was a classic case of guilt by association. This was a 'thought crime.' The government merged its concerns over Mehanna's speech with its attribution of criminal purpose to his travel--with obvious success."

They appear to be doing the same again.

On April 12, 2012, Tarek Mehanna was sentenced to 17-and-a-half years in jail for conspiring to kill American citizens. Matanov faces up to 44 years in jail and a $250,000 fine upon conviction.

Harassment of Muslims

Mehanna's trial lasted nine weeks, but was the culmination of four years of FBI harassment, surveillance, and intimidation against him, all aimed at successfully recruiting him as an FBI informant. His continued refusal to cooperate with the FBI is thought to be one of the underlying reasons he faced the charges he did. Mehanna is not alone.

Diala Shamas, an attorney working with New York's Muslim communities at the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility (CLEAR) project, said:

"On a daily basis, our clients are targeted by FBI agents inquiring into the most intimate and protected areas of their lives. They are approached at night at their homes, stopped in front of their neighbors or children, solicited outside their subway stops or interrogated at their workplaces in front of their colleagues and customers."

She added that, contrary to the FBI's claims, interrogations are far from voluntary and agents regularly warn her clients who invoke their right to have an attorney present that "they can do this the easy way or the hard way."

One client was so frightened by the agents' threats that he agreed to accompany them to FBI headquarters and let them strap him to what they claimed was a polygraph machine. For four hours they asked him questions, accused him of lying, then told him they wanted him to to work an informant.

The FBI has a long and sordid history when it comes to the coersion of Muslims it deems 'valuable' and there is little reason to assume the treatment of Khairullozhon Matanov was any different.

The indictment reveals extensive contacts between Mantatov and the FBI over many months. Neighbours also confirmed he was visited on 'numerous occasions' during the past year. Plain clothes and uniformed officers would remain outside and monitor his apartment, neighbours said. The surveillance of Matanov was relentless and even extended to the use of a plane flying loops around his residence last spring between the hours 7 p.m. and 4 a.m.

Given Matanov's friendship with Tamerlan Tsarnaev it seems inconceivable that he was not approached with a deal in exchange for information on Tsarnaev, or asked to testify in the up-coming trial of his younger brother, Dzhokhar.

It took a year...

No one has has offered a sufficient explanation as to why it took investigators more than a year between first interviewing Matanov and eventually charging him. "That's the million dollar question," his attorney said. As with Mehanna, could Matanov's refusal to cooperative with the FBI have anything to do with it?

Nour Rhadbane, Matanov's boss of two years at the cab company he leased a car from, said he made no secret of his relationship with the Tsarnaevs. Matanov told other cab drivers that he knew the brothers. "It was vague and I didn't play close attention," Rhadbane said. "He said he knew them and they used to play soccer together. He was saying he didn't think they did it (the bombings)."

This suggests that if Matanov was approached with a deal - he certainly wasn't prepared to accept it.

With the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev just months away Doug Sheff, president of the Massachusetts Bar Association, who isn't involved in the case, said, "I would say there are two potential reasons that they waited so long to indict him. One could be to gather more information, and the other could be to strengthen the death-penalty claim."

Sheff continued, "I think that may well be the second prong of what they're doing. If the sentence scares the kid (Matanov), a plea could be a way to try to get the death penalty."

US attorney Carmen Ortiz may well be using weak charges supported by 'objectionable speech' in an attempt to coerce Matanov to testify - and with Mehanna already under her belt she knows exactly how to successfully prosecute such a case. A thought crime based on ideology and the power of suggestion - but very little else. If certain types of speech can be considered 'objectionable', the government's motives for indicting Matanov must be considered far, far worse.

The US government's war on terror has produced many casualties but not all of them stem from battlefield. Many are punished simply for their ideas, the cases against them built on conjecture and aggressively prosecuted with a lynch-mob mentality.

Islamophobia has resulted in an hysterical witch-hunt for 'extreme' Muslims who are then pulled into the federal system and treated like disposable pawns, to be used for whatever purpose the government sees fit.

Is Khairullozhon Matanov merely its latest victim?

 

The author holds a Bsc (hons) Criminal Justice and Social Policy, and has worked extensively within the Criminal Justice System. She now takes a keen interest in investigative journalism with particular emphasis placed on social injustice, the rule (more...)
 

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