‘I grew up in Brooklyn, I can shank it up with the best of them’
Brooklyn Man and Website Co-founder Awaits Sentencing
By Matthew Barakat
McLEAN, Va. — A convicted internet pirate with a penchant for speaking out about her perceived persecution by federal prosecutors may find herself going to prison sooner than she expected.
Last week, Hana Beshara, 30, known on the internet as “Queen Phara,” was sentenced to nearly two years in prison for her role running a website called NinjaVideo. The site gained fame for facilitating millions of illegal downloads of pirated movies and TV shows, and “Phara” was something of a superstar in the piracy community.
Prosecutors used the former valedictorian’s online comments about growing up in Brooklyn to show what they claimed was a lack of remorse.
“Beshara’s post-sentencing actions demonstrate a clear lack of remorse over her illegal conduct and a disregard of the harm her actions have caused, and pose a danger to the community,” wrote prosecutors Lindsay Kelly and Jay Prabhu. Specifically, they cited her comment that she would “run” her cell block, accompanied by the line: “don’t worry, I grew up in Brooklyn, I can shank it up with the best of them.”
Beshara’s lawyer, David B. Smith, said she was letting off steam and joking about violence in prison.
The sentencing came just two and half months after a Brooklyn man and NinjaVideo co-founder Justin A. Dedemko pled guilty to conspiracy charges in federal court.
The 28-year-old man could face five years in prison at sentencing on Feb. 24. Five other co-conspirators have also pled guilty.
The website was “seized” by the U.S. Department of Justice and taken offline in July 2010. NinjaVideo reportedly made $505,000 from online advertising and donations, according to federal prosecutors.
Dedemko has agreed to pay restitution for the $58,004 he allegedly earned. Dedemko’s sentencing is set for Feb. 24.
As is common, the judge in Beshara’s case gave the North Brunswick, N.J., woman a few weeks or months to get her affairs in order before serving her sentence.
Prosecutors in Alexandria, Va., are now demanding she be jailed immediately after she took to Facebook to criticize the government’s case and enlist public support. A hearing on the government’s request was scheduled for Friday.
Beshara’s lawyer says she is entitled to speak about her unhappiness with her case.
Almost immediately after her sentence, Beshara posted blurbs on Facebook and other internet sites bemoaning her punishment, seeking to set up media interviews and enlisting a documentary filmmaker to tell her story. The day after she was sentenced, she posted a photo of herself in a sleeveless top, writing “I’m attractive” and “will use every single tool at my disposal for this community.” She then solicits supporters with contacts at men’s magazines like FHM and Maxim, with the proviso that she won’t do nude shots.
“People love a beautiful victim and I’m prettier than the MPAA,” she wrote, referring to the Motion Picture Association of America, which has lobbied for crackdowns on copyright infringement and piracy.
She attacked U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride, whose office prosecuted the case, and says it’s ridiculous that she’s going to prison at all.
“Expressing some anger that she is going to prison for her conduct is speech that is protected by the Constitution,” Smith wrote.
In a letter to U.S. District Judge Anthony Trenga, Beshara apologized for using bad language but explained that “the nature of the internet can be one of bluster, bravado and scathing comebacks.”
“I am not belittling my sentence. I am afraid of going to prison,” she said.
NinjaVideo was among the most prominent of several piracy websites targeted by the federal government. It was shut down in 2010, and five of its leaders, including Beshara, were indicted last year. Four have pleaded guilty, while a fifth remains at large. Beshara was the first to be sentenced.
At its peak, NinjaVideo facilitated nearly 1 million illegal downloads a week of films and TV shows.
Prosecutors, who sought a stiffer sentence of about four years, highlighted to the judge her prominence on the internet, and said a strong sentence would send a message to other would-be pirates.
“‘Phara’ soon became larger than life owing to Beshara’s acid tongue and short temper,” prosecutors wrote. “Even today, Beshara’s substantial ego is inextricably intertwined with her role at NinjaVideo.”
In court papers, Beshara argued her motives were altruistic and that she saw NinjaVideo as a sort of Robin Hood that stole from greedy movie studios to provide free entertainment to the masses.
But evidence shows that NinjaVideo pulled in more than $500,000 from its illegal activities. While most people downloaded content for free, some paid a subscription fee for access to exclusive content, and the site also took in ad revenue. Prosecutors said Beshara personally earned more than $200,000, though she insists it was much less after expenses.
“She likened her infringing activities to civil disobedience. She knew she would likely have to pay a price for that someday, but, like her co-defendants, did not know how heavy it might be,” her lawyer wrote.
Beshara, a high school valedictorian and graduate of New York University, was described in court papers as an “emotional and high-strung woman” by her own attorney, given to fits of weeping. Indeed, in a series of YouTube videos she posted throughout her case, she fights back tears as she describes her case in a maudlin tone.
“Apparently it’s extremely unusual for a defendant to be this public,” she says in one video posted just after she struck her plea deal. “We feel like we’ve been uber-quiet.”
Additional reporting by Samuel Newhouse of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.