Trial By Fire
By Tommy Purvis
A first-of-a-kind verdict that drips with the goo of Islamophobia was delivered behind the Orange Curtain last Friday. A trio of Muslim malcontents—Khalid Gahgat Akari, Taher Mutaz Herzallah and Shaheen Waleed Nassar—from UC Riverside were sentenced for being part of the so-called “Irvine 11,” the group whose act of civil disobedience at UC Irvine led to a delay to a scheduled speech by the Israeli ambassador to the United States and the cancelation of a question-and-answer session.
Ten of the 11 Muslim students were found guilty on two criminal misdemeanor charges for conspiring to disrupt and for disrupting Michael Oren’s speech to 500 people at the Irvine campus last February. Each member of the group must pay $270 in fines, and must serve 56 hours of community service within a year to end three years of informal probation. One member of the Irvine 11 was able to avoid the trial after he agreed to serve 40 hours of community service at a soup kitchen. The other will be left with criminal records for fulfilling the liberties granted to them in the First Amendment.
Ambassador Oren was still able to speak at an event organized through the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles, but he was heckled numerous times. Members of the Muslim Student Union (MSU) from both UCR and UCI stood-up one at a time to shout scripted messages that related to a 2009 Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip—such as “You, sir, are an accomplice to genocide!” and “Propagating murder is not free speech!” and “You are a war criminal!” The students were then escorted out of the room by police.
Supporters that had been planted in the audience cheered loudly after the students spoke.
Judge Peter Wilson told a packed room at the Orange County Superior Courthouse that jail time was not warranted for the convictions because evidence showed the students were “motivated by their belief and did not disrupt for the sake of disrupting.”
Oren was picked as a prime target by the activists for being a media relations officer for the Israel Defense Force (IDF) during the Israel-Gaza conflict in 2008-2009 named Operation Cast Lead. The military action became known as the Gaza Massacre to Palestinians in Gaza, Khan Younis and Rafa after more than 1,000 civilians were killed by the IDF. (Oren is American-born, but later took an “oath of renunciation” that stripped him of his U.S. citizenship to serve as the Israeli ambassador.)
Many thought that punishment for the students was through after both the UCI and UCR administrations quickly responded with suspensions, probations and other sanctions. UCI’s MSU was suspended for a quarter for its involvement of the protest. The group of agitators was also ordered to collectively complete 100 hours of community service. Nearly a year later, the Riverside 3 learned that Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas had decided to file misdemeanor charges. Rackauckas said the verdict “was a strong message that First Amendment rights belong to every American and we will not tolerate a small band of people who want to hijack our freedoms,” in a statement released from his office.
But a group of faculty called UCR Against Criminalization of Irvine Eleven argues that the trial is a slippery slope designed to chill activism on California’s college campuses. The group started an online petition to voice its concern over the charges and released the following statement: “Regardless of our varying perspectives on the students’ political views, or on the propriety of the strategies used to express their views, we are unified in our common belief that the decision to criminally prosecute these students is a grave mistake. Rather than protect free speech, this prosecution will likely silence and intimidate those who wish to express their political dissent, thus posing a real threat to our constitutional right to organize, meet, and protest in the pursuit of political goals.”
Shaheen Waleed Nassar of the Riverside 3 says he will not back down despite the cost.
“Despite the prejudicial nature of the charges filed against us, and the actions of the university administration, I want to say that I respect the court’s decision,” Nassar says. “[H]owever, I would like to emphasize how proud I am of my actions on February 8 . I intend to continue my activism, to give voice to the voiceless . . . [i]ncluding my cousins, who died during the Gaza massacre. And the 1,400 other civilians who lost their lives during that massacre as well. May God rest their souls.”