Dressed in formal suits, button-up shirts and neat ties, the young men dubbed the "Irvine 11" appeared in court today, pleading not guilty to misdemeanor charges of both interrupting and conspiring to interrupt a lecture held last year on the UC Irvine campus, in which Israeli Ambassador to the United StatesMichael Oren
was invited to speak.
If convicted, the 11, many of whom are still students, may face up to a year in jail.
No ruling was made today on defense motions filed last month to remove the Orange County District Attorney's office (OCDA) from the case. (More on that later in this post.)
- Accused of Anti-Muslim Bias, OC District Attorney Won't Recuse Office From Prosecution of UCI 11 Protesters
The majority of the prosecution is based on evidence attained by the OCDA in a variety of ways, including subpoenas and warrants, that are alleged to demonstrate the interruption was a planned event and, thus, a conspiracy.
Supporters of the Irvine 11 showed up in force both within and outside the courtroom, many wearing multi-colored hijabs. The defendants stood behind their lawyers throughout the hearing, alternating between watching the judge, verifying with their respective attorneys, and trying not to look at the cameras.
The OCDA has received heated criticism from those who stand behind the 11, who include Muslim activists, civil rights groups and even UCI faculty members and deans. These supporters cast doubts on the nature and motivation behind the DA's prosecution of the young activists. The group's defense attorneys are currently advocating removing the OCDA from the case, citing four claims they believe are preventing their clients from receiving a fair trial:
Claim 1: "The manner in which the OCDA investigated the case demonstrates bias against . . . co-defendants";
Claim 2: "The OCDA obtained, relied on, distributed, and remains in possession of privileged information";
Claim 3: "The OCDA's statements to the media demonstrate bias against defendants";
Claim 4: "The OCDA's use of the term 'UCI Muslim Case' demonstrates religious bias against defendants."
Assistant District AttorneyDan Wagner
denied all claims as "vague, speculative, conclusory, and unsubstantiated," including the notion among Irvine 11 supporters that the prosecution is motivated by selective enforcement of the law, based on content and the religion of the defendants. In a press conference held after the trial, Wagner explained.
"The content doesn't matter, they could have been yelling gibberish," he said. "They [the defense] are making a mountain out of something much smaller than a molehill. The First Amendment rights of the speaker and the crowd were trampled on."
In regards to the OCDA's use of the term "UCI Muslim case" in emails with defense lawyers concerning proposed settlements of the case, Wagner implied that this stemmed from a secretary's labeling but was logical, since the DA's office is currently prosecuting other UCI students, and the fact that the Irvine 11 "call themselves the Muslim Student Union."
Wagner also defended the OCDA's possession of "privileged information," explicating that the search warrants were issued to Google for message-board posts, and that the Internet search engine complied.
One nevertheless wonders about the motivation behind a prosecution aided by an anonymous email, dated March 24, 2010, and addressed to UC Irvine Chancellor Michael Drake, among others. It reads:
Dear Chancellor Drake,
For two years I have been wondering why Muslim students at UCI have become the center of a global firestorm of ugliness and controversy.
This has cast the entire University and its students under a dark cloud. I wondered who might be fostering the hatred that goes on there.
I understand that you are currently investigating the disruption of the Ambassador Oren event on February 8, 2010. Despite claims by the Muslim Student Union that this was an isolated incident undertaken without the direction of the organization, there is evidence to the contrary.
Please review the attached emails and manifesto where you will see the truth!
cc: Mark G. Yudof, President, University of California
Manuel N. Gomez, [then] Vice Chancellor Student Affairs, UCI
Brad Sherman, Congressman
John Campbell, Congressman
Tony Rackauckas, Orange County District Attorney
Shalom C Elcott, President, Jewish Federation Orange County
Edgar Dormitorio, Director, Student Conduct
Paul Henisey, Police Chief, UCI
Ramona Agrela, Associate Chancellor, UCI
Diane Geocaris, Chief of Camps Counsel, UCI
Steven Emerson, Executive Director, The Investigative Project on Terrorism
For Jacqueline Goodman, who represents defendants Osama Shabiak and Mohemed Abdelgany, the motivation is clear.
"No student stood up and said, 'I'm a Muslim.' It was very political, and yet it's called the UCI Muslim case," said the defense lawyer. "These students were fighting for us all that day, speaking for people whose voices have been silenced. They did that again today."
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Goodman went on to describe what she believes to be District Attorney Tony Rackauckas' "political opportunism," citing his surprise re-election announcement as one of the key motives behind the investigation.
The defense and prosecution will appear in court again on May 13 at the Santa Ana Central Justice Center to discuss the sealing or unsealing of material seized through search warrants. They'll be back in court on June 17 for a ruling on the majority of the defense motions, including the demand to remove the OCDA from the case.
The formal trial is currently scheduled for Aug. 15 at 9 a.m.