By VIK JOLLY, ANDREW GALVIN and SALVADOR HERNANDEZ
THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
SANTA ANA – Eleven students were charged Friday 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.
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.”
>JEBB HARRIS, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
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“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. “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.”
Each defendant is charged with one misdemeanor count of conspiracy to disturb a meeting and one misdemeanor count of the disturbance of a meeting, according to a news release from the District Attorney’s Office. If convicted, each faces a sentence that could include probation with community service or fines or up to six months in jail.
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.
While eight students charged are from UCI, Akari, Herzallah and Nassar were students at UC Riverside.
“We don’t think they deserve to be charged,” said Mohy Abdelgany, 50, of Irvine, Abdelgany’s father. “They simply stood, made a very short statement and left the room peacefully. … In the same event there was heckling and threats by other audience members with the opposite view of the protesters.”
Abdelgany added that his son is on vacation and not available to speak.
The younger Abdelgany, who was president of the Muslim Student Union at UCI, is accused of meeting with other members of the group in the days before Oren’s speech to plan to disrupt it, prosecutors said. He is accused of sending an email to the group’s message board saying “we will be staging a University of Chicago Style disruption of the Ambassador’s speech.”
Two days before the speech, Abdelgany is accused of sending an email to the group’s message board with a “Game Plan” for disrupting the event, and advising in the email that “to the outside,” the disruption was to be portrayed as done by individuals, not the Muslim Student Union, in order to “put up an obstacle” against the UCI administration in case it was to “come after the MSU” afterward, according to prosecutors.
The day before Oren’s speech, Abdelgany sent an email advising “nondisruptors” to cheer after each “disruptor” finished, prosecutors said.
During Oren’s speech, the eleven are accused of standing up, one by one, and shouting statements such as “Michael Oren, propagating murder is not free speech” and “Michael Oren, you are a war criminal.”
All 11 defendants were arrested, cited and released at the time.
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The UCI students have already been disciplined by the university, but those consequences cannot be disclosed publicly, said Cathy Lawhon, a UCI spokeswoman.
“The district attorney’s announcement reflects action that’s completely independent of the university,” Lawhon said Friday. “He has subpoena power and access to information that we do not. From our perspective we thoroughly and fairly investigated and adjudicated the matter last year. Conduct violations were addressed fully, consistent with the guidelines of the student code of conduct. Since the university’s resolution of this matter in the summer of 2010, our community has continued to build bridges of understanding and foundations for respectful and meaningful dialog.”
UCI also 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 Friday, 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 Friday, 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.
“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 the UCI administration, would require the OCDA office’s reopening of the matter, particularly by investigating it as a felony crime,” the letter reads.
Since the incident, at least six of the 11 students had been subpoenaed before the grand jury panel. Earlier this week, about two dozen students protested the grand jury investigation before the county Board of Supervisors.
The letter stated that the probe seems to target a select group, and that the targeting of the 11 students could undermine the public’s perception of the District Attorney’s Office and the justice system.
“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,” the letter reads.
“Such a probe is wasting tax payers’ dollars,” said Munira Syeda, spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Though some called the district attorney’s probe excessive, they also said they did not agree with the students’ actions.
“I found their (the students’) behavior incredibly boorish,” said Rev. Paul Tellstrom of the Irvine United Congregational Church, before the charges were filed Friday afternoon. The church’s Advocates for Peace and Justice supported the letter. “But I still think the actions being enacted (by Rackauckas) are very over the top.”
Rev. Sarah Halverson of Irvine’s Fairview Community Church called the grand jury investigation “an overreaction.”
“It’s symptomatic of something in our society and how we feel about Islam,” Halverson said, stating that she felt the students were being targeted. “I think that’s not appropriate.”
Rev. Wilfredo Benitez of Saint Anselm of Canterbury Episcopal Church said he was perplexed by the decision to investigate the incident.
“I don’t see the value or point of it,” he said. “I’m also concerned it could further polarize the community and generate further suspicion of Muslims. This doesn’t help build bridges.”
Said Rackauckas in his statement: “We cannot tolerate having a group deciding to prevent a speaker from speaking, an audience from listening, and the speaker and the audience from engaging in an exchange of ideas in the form of questions and answers.”
Register staff writer Brian Martinez contributed to this report.
Contact the writer: [email protected] or 949-454-7361