|AMP Report – February 7, 2011
11 UC Irvine Muslim students face charges for
disrupting Israeli ambassador’s speech
In Santa Ana, CA, eleven students were charged on February 4, 2011 with conspiring to disrupt a speech last year by the Israeli ambassador to the United States at UC Irvine.
The incident occurred Feb. 8, 2010, when Ambassador Michael Oren was the featured speaker on campus at a meeting co-sponsored by several organizations. Eleven Muslim students were arrested in the incident.
“This case is being filed because there was an organized attempt to squelch the speaker, who was invited to speak to a group at UCI,” District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said in a statement quoted by the Orange County Register. “These defendants meant to stop this speech and stop anyone else from hearing his ideas, and they did so by disrupting a lawful meeting. This is a clear violation of the law and failing to bring charges against this conduct would amount to a failure to uphold the Constitution.”
They are scheduled to be arraigned on the charges March 11.
The defendants are: Mohamed Mohy-Eldeen Abdelgany, 23; Khalid Gahgat Akari, 19; Aslam Abbasi Akhtar, 23; Joseph Tamim Haider, 23; Taher Mutaz Herzallah, 21; Hakim Nasreddine Kebir, 20; Shaheen Waleed Nassar, 21; Mohammad Uns Qureashi, 19; Ali Mohammad Sayeed, 23; Osama Ahmen Shabaik, 22; and Asaad Mohamedidris Traina, 19.
UC Irvine students, local Muslims and supporters, many with mouths taped rallied outside the Orange County District Attorney’s office Feb. 1, 2011. They protested potential criminal charges against UCI Muslim student union members arrested last February after disrupting a speech in by the Israeli Ambassador to the United States.
The sign says, “Stand with the 11.”
The UCI students have already been disciplined by the university, but those consequences cannot be disclosed publicly, said Cathy Lawhon, a UCI spokeswoman.
UCI has revoked the Muslim Student Union’s charter for one year and placed it on probation for another year. In September, the school softened the sanctions and restored the group’s charter on Dec. 31, but added a year of probation and 100 hours of community service.
After the charges were announced, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California said it was “deeply troubled” by the District Attorney’s decision.
“We are unaware of any case where a district attorney pressed criminal charges over this type of non violent student protest,” said Hector Villagra, incoming director of the ACLU of Southern California, in a statement. “The District Attorney’s action will undoubtedly intimidate students in Orange County and across the state and discourage them from engaging in any controversial speech or protest for fear of criminal charges.”
Earlier, representatives from nearly 30 civic and religious organizations in Southern California questioned the district attorney’s decision to launch a grand jury investigation of the 11 students.
The grand jury was not used to indict the defendants, but was used as an investigative arm of the district attorney under state law, said Susan Kang Schroeder, Rackauckas’s chief of staff.
In a letter addressed to Rackauckas, members of Muslim, Christian, Jewish and civil rights organizations questioned the resources being spent in the investigation, calling the possibility of felony charges being levied against the students excessive for a university demonstration.
Here is the text of the letter to Rackauckas published by Orange County Register
Dear Mr. Rackauckas:
It is with deep concern that we, Orange County community religious and civic leaders, write to you regarding the pursuance of felony criminal charges against students who verbally protested a speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) in February of 2010.
Earlier this month, we were distraught to learn that several Muslim students from UCI were subpoenaed to testify before an Orange County Grand Jury, which is almost exclusively impaneled to investigate or indict felonies. Based on this, and Mr. William J. Feccia’s Oct. 22, 2010 letter to interfaith leaders that confirmed that the OCDA was actively investigating the events of February 2010, we have strong reason to believe that your office is planning to indict with felonies some of the students who protested Ambassador Oren.
By writing this, we by no means seek to unreasonably interfere with the exercise of your prosecutorial discretion. But we feel it only appropriate to comment on what we feel would constitute a proper regard for justice.
As leaders whose activities substantially occur in Orange County, we are all too well acquainted with the criminal challenges our O.C. community faces. Members of our congregations or organizations are fraught by the increase in violent and property crime in some of Orange County’s major cities, such as Garden Grove, Huntington Beach, and Orange that saw upward of an 11 percent increase in violent crime in the first half of 2010, and Santa Ana and Anaheim that witnessed significant increases in property crime.
We are therefore intimately interested in the proper use of our constituents’ tax dollars and our county’s limited resources. With so many of the above challenges, can the office of the OCDA seriously afford, in terms of money and staffing, to pursue charges against students who were involved in a university protest?
We fervently regret that the OCDA’s investigation of the event has risen to the level of grand jury proceedings, and we have no alternative but to believe felony charges would be excessive. First, the students non-violently and verbally protested a university-invited speaker. The students left the event peacefully, and conducted themselves in less of a disruptive manner than some of the counter-protesters, all of which is readily apparent from the video footage available online. Such protests are common to university campuses, where the exercise of free and dissident speech is the bedrock of our democratic process. It is our understanding that the Muslim Student Union and possibly some of the involved students have already been reprimanded by the UCI administration. The events of Feb. 8, 2010, occurred at UCI, at a UCI jointly-sponsored student and administration event, and the young people in question were or are students. Mr. Oren was able to finish his speech, the event concluded; the impact of the disturbance did not resound beyond the halls of that evening’s event. While we acknowledge that crimes can and do occur on college campuses, we are hard-pressed to understand why a University-specific situation, which was thoroughly dealt with by UCI administration, would require the OCDA’s reopening of the matter, particularly by investigating it as a felony crime.
As District Attorney, it is within your discretion to determine society’s interests in seeking punishment of certain offenses. Over the years, there have been countless instances of non-violent protest activities during campus speeches, including at UCI, with no comparable criminal prosecution. By criminally prosecuting one set of protesters and not others, including the counter-protesters at the same event, who cursed, threatened and even assaulted the students, these indictments would be singular. Orange County citizens would understand from your office’s actions that minority or disfavored groups receive a disproportionate and selective application of the law, while the integrity of the office of the OCDA as well as the justice system would be profoundly undermined.
Most importantly, indicting these students would have a severe chilling effect on the exercise of free speech on campuses and elsewhere. Because the right to freely express oneself, particularly against government policies, is a cherished freedom protected by our Constitution, only in very narrow circumstances may these activities be subdued by state action. At the same time, prosecuting these students may in fact lead to more disruptive and perhaps violent forms of political protests, since less non-violent and less disruptive protests would by this new precedent carry nearly the same criminal exposure.
It is difficult for us to put into words the extent to which this development disturbs the conscience and would disrupt the OCDA’s ability to establish meaningful justice. Our vision for Orange County is that it be a place where all faith groups are treated with equal respect and due process of law, where no political viewpoint is penalized, and where all of our public officials and offices utilize their stations to promote these ends. We therefore request that you assist in ending what we believe to be an unnecessary and excessive response to the events of February 2010 by exercising your discretion to not indict the students on criminal charges.
List of individuals and organizations which signed this letter:
1. Eric Altman, Executive Director, Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development
2. Salam Al-Marayati, President, Muslim Public Affairs Council
3. Chuck Anderson, President ACLU Chapter, Orange County; Chair, The Peace & Freedom Party, Orange County
4. Asian Law Caucus
5. Hussam Ayloush, Executive Director, Council on American-Islamic Relations, Greater Los Angeles Area
6. Rawhi Beituni, President, West Coast Islamic Society
7. Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak,
8. HaMifgash (The Gathering) www.HaMifgash.org
9. Rev. Wilfredo Benitez, Rector of Saint Anselm of Canterbury Episcopal Church
10. Estee Chandler, A Jewish Voice for Peace, Los Angeles Chapter
11. Issa Edah-Tally, President, Islamic Center of Irvine
12. Sheikh Muhammad Faqih, Religious Director, Islamic Institute of Orange
13. Sheikh Yassir Fazaga
14. Felicity Figueroa, concerned citizen
15. Rev. Elizabeth Griswold, Chair, Progressive Christians Uniting, Orange
16. Rev. Sarah Halverson, Fairview Community Church
17. Rev. Dr. Mike Holland, Pastor, Church of the Foothills, UCC & DOC
18. Irvine United Congregational Church Advocates for Peace and Justice
19. Rev. Douglas Johnstone, Lutheran Pastor
20 Orange County Peace Coalition
21. Jim Lafferty, Executive Director, National Lawyer’s Guild, Los Angeles Chapter
22. Rev. Darrell McGowan, Senior Pastor, First Christian Church of Fullerton
23. Mike Penn, concerned citizen, Forman of the Orange County Grand Jury 2006-
24. Sheikh Sayyid Qazwini, Islamic Educational Center of Orange County
25. Dr. Muzzammil Siddiqi, Islamic Society of Orange County
26. Rev. Jerry Stinson, First Congregational Church of Long Beach
27. Shakeel Syed, Executive Director, Islamic Shura Council of Southern
28. Hector Villagra, Incoming Executive Director, ACLU of Southern California
Women For: Orange County
29. Seval Yildirim, Associate Professor, Whittier Law School
CAIR-Greater Los Angeles Area statement:
”We are appalled that the office of District Attorney Rackauckas is bringing criminal charges against the ‘Irvine 11’ students, who nonviolently and verbally protested a university-invited speaker. The students left the event peacefully and willingly, and Ambassador Oren was able to complete his speech.
“The university incident – which was already dealt with thoroughly by the university administration and resulted in disciplinary proceedings of the students — does not warrant the filing of criminal charges by the District Attorney’s office.
“The measures being taken by the DA’s office against the ‘Irvine 11’ students are disproportionate and unprecedented.
“We strongly urge Mr. Rauckauckas to guard the exercise of free speech and appropriately spend tax payer dollars by dropping all charges against the Irvine 11 students.”