'Hope and prayers' for Muslim students on trial for heckling Israeli ambassador

September 19, 2011

The controversial trial of 10 Muslim students – arrested for heckling the Israeli ambassador during a campus speech last year at the University of California in Irvine – was coming to a close Sept. 19, but their supporters were just getting warmed up.

An overflow multiethnic, interfaith crowd packed an Orange County Superior Courtroom as attorneys on both sides began wrapping up their cases, citing free speech arguments. Prosecutors said the students had effectively censored Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren's Feb. 8, 2010 speech; defense attorneys said their behavior amounted to normal student activism.

Dozens more in solidarity with the "Irvine 11" but unable to find seats in the courtroom, filled the hallway outside, their hopes and prayers pinned on an eventual verdict in favor of the students' right to express public dissent. Representatives of faith and secular organizations prepared for a second day of closing arguments Sept. 20 and said they believe prosecutors have targeted the students because they are Muslim.

The Rev. John Conrad, rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Riverside, California, said it was gratifying "to see so many representatives of the various faiths coming together on the common ground of truth and justice and liberty. It's redeeming. I pray the jury is swayed to find them innocent."

Conrad, a member of the Bishop's Commission on the Middle East in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, was in the courtroom for morning closing statements Sept. 19 by Deputy District Attorney Dan Wagner. "The truth of the matter is, this isn't an issue for Muslims, or Christians, or Jews. It's an issue for people," he said during a gathering of media representatives afterwards.

"It's an issue about justice, about people who are oppressed and who have no voice. It's a tremendous travesty and it [this case] will cool and chill dissent in this area, which is a sad, sad thing, and certainly not the American way."

Saadia Khan, civic outreach coordinator for the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles, said the decision to prosecute the students "is already setting an unhealthy precedent for college campuses nationwide. Dissent on college campuses is an American tradition … no matter what faith (or no faith) a student subscribes to."

In all, 11 students – seven from the University of California at Irvine (UCI) and three from the University of California Riverside (UCR) – were charged with two misdemeanor offenses, conspiracy to disturb a meeting and disturbing a meeting.

The students shouted at Oren shortly after he began a Feb. 8, 2010 speech on the UCI campus. Oren had been invited to speak by several UCI groups, including Anteaters for Israel, and the school's law and political science departments.

If convicted, each of the students – Mohamed Mohy-Eldeen Abdelgany, Khalid Gahgat Akari, Aslam Abbasi Akhtar, Joseph Tamim Haider, Taher Mutaz Herzallah, Shaheen Waleed Nassar, Mohammad Uns Qureashi, Ali Mohammad Sayeed, Osama Ahmen Shabaik and Asaad Mohamedidris Traina – could be sentenced to up to six months in jail per charge.

The charges against an 11th student, Hakim Nasreddine Kebir, were dismissed. He was expected to complete 40 hours of community service.

Wagner told the court Sept. 19 that the students' intent was to shut down the event by using a "heckler's veto."

"Who is the censor in this case?" he asked. "Right there, 10 of them. This is about freedom of speech. This is why we're all here."

Wagner showed the jury a videotape of the event, depicting the students, rising in turn and shouting such statements as: "Michael Oren, propagating murder isn't free speech." And, "you sir, are an accomplice to genocide." Following each statement, the student was escorted peacefully from the room, amid cheering and jeering, by campus security. They were later "processed" – handcuffed, arrested, and fingerprinted, defense attorneys said.

Oren left the podium but later returned. Wagner argued that the student disruptions prevented him from completing his speech and from participating in a subsequent question-and-answer session.

Defense attorney Reem Salahi countered that Oren arrived late after attending a VIP reception and left the event early to get to a Los Angeles Lakers basketball game that evening. Published reports show Oren posing for photos with Laker team captain Kobe Bryant.

The students had objected to the university's invitation to the American-born Oren, who emigrated to Israel in 1979 and joined the Israeli Defense Forces. He served multiple tours in the Israeli Army including the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. According to a statement by the UCI Muslim Students Council (MSU), Oren is "an outspoken supporter of the recent war on Gaza."

He "stands in the way of international law by refusing to cooperate with the United Nation's Goldstone Report a fact-finding mission endorsed by the United Nations Human Rights Council," the statement added. "The Goldstone Report accuses the Israeli government of committing war crimes and possible crimes against humanity in the densely populated Gaza Strip."

Superior Court Judge Peter Wilson had issued a gag order, prohibiting both students and attorneys from commenting about the case.

Estee Chandler, the Los Angeles organizer for Jewish Voice for Peace, said the students merely "wanted to make their voices heard."

She joined others at the press conference who criticized Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas for "selectively prosecuting for political reasons" the students because they are Muslim. They cited numerous instances where current and former public officials were heckled and no arrests were made, including the 2001 heckling of a Muslim activist at UCI, also seen on videotape.

"These students [the Irvine-11] inspire me and give me hope that the jury will in fact deliver them the justice they and their families deserve," said Chandler.

Kristen Ess Schurr, organizer for CODEPINK Los Angeles, a grassroots peace and social justice movement working to end U.S. funded wars and occupations, told the gathering that "on the very same day this trial opened [Sept. 7, 2011] two non-Muslim women disrupted the speech of former U.S. vice president Dick Cheney, also in Orange County. These women were not arrested or prosecuted." She cited another incident several months earlier when a speech by former President George W. Bush was disrupted in Orange County and no arrests or prosecutions resulted.

The trial has fueled anti-Muslim sentiment, said others, including the Rev. Wilfredo Benítez, rector of St. Anselm's Episcopal Church http://saintanselmgg.org/ in Garden Grove, California, who attended the court proceedings.

"This is a sad day in Orange County, that Muslim students should be persecuted for speaking their conscience," Benítez said. "There's an unspoken rule in this county and even in the nation that no one can be critical of Israel or they will be looked at as hostile. That's part of what's motivating this."

"As a Christian leader in the community, it's important that I stand in solidarity with them [the students] as they exercise their constitutional rights to do that … and that I stand in solidarity with other religious leaders in support of this community that seems to be singled out in this instance."

Kathy Masaoka, a retired L.A. Unified School District teacher and chair of the Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress, told the gathering that members of the Japanese American organization had been attending the trial in support of the students because "we understand how it feels to be targeted."

"During World War II, 120,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated in camps simply for being Japanese Americans and looking like the enemy," she said. "We had committed no wrong and there was no trial. Our constitutional rights of due process were denied. We learned a lesson from this experience and understand how important it is to speak out in support of others who are facing similar discrimination.

"The true crime here is that they are forced to defend themselves for exercising an important democratic value which is their right, to protest."

A recent graduate of UCI, a Muslim woman who has attended the trial daily and asked that her name be withheld for her own protection, said that the incident heightened festering anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab sentiment at the campus.

Although present at Oren's speech, she said she did not participate in the protest but became concerned for her own safety because of audience reaction. "I was just sitting there. I wasn't yelling or anything and the audience was getting physical," she said during a court recess Sept. 19. "People were yelling at me and I didn't do anything."

"The problem with the whole case is that it's political," she added. "If they are found guilty and sentenced to jail, they will be political prisoners. I didn't agree with what the students did, but I support their right to free speech. I don't feel they deserve jail time for this at all."

Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Shura Council of Southern California, an umbrella group of mosques and Muslim organizations serving more than 500,000 Muslims in Southern California, called the prosecution's closing arguments "political theater."

He said he hoped the rule of law and common sense would prevail among jurors as they begin deliberations, possibly as early as Sept. 20.

"The prosecution argued today that [the student actions] were heckler's veto. I say it's legal tyranny when dissent is suppressed. That will be the beginning of the death of democracy," he said. "I firmly believe that the U.S. Constitution must trump, and not get trampled by, the laws of UCI or any other campus."

But he added that the trial has helped to deepen interfaith relationships. The faith leaders present Sept. 19 were "the best expression of American democracy and American values," he told the gathering. "I salute you … whether you be Jew, Christian or Buddhist or atheist. Thank God you are all here. You uphold the American values of freedom and justice."

Victoria Tamoush, a parishioner at the Episcopal Church of the Messiah in Santa Ana agreed. A member of the Bishop's Commission on the Middle East, she said the group had, among other things, launched a letter-writing campaign, unsuccessfully, to the Orange County district attorney asking him to forego charging the students.

She, too, has witnessed new relationships blossom.

"There are a lot of people who haven't had a lot of interaction with Muslims before who are involved, especially Episcopalians," she said during a Sept. 19 telephone interview from her Tustin home. "They've gotten to know Muslims on a one-on-one basis and real friendships have formed."