10 MEN CONVICTED AND SENTENCED FOR CONSPIRACY AND DISRUPTING A MEETING DURING SPEECH BY ISRAELI AMBASSADOR AT UCI
SANTA ANA – An Orange County jury convicted 10 defendants today with conspiracy to disrupt a meeting and speech by the Israeli Ambassador to the United States at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). The defendants were sentenced to three years of informal probation and 56 hours of court-approved community service. Each defendant was found guilty of one misdemeanor count of conspiracy to disturb a meeting and one misdemeanor count of the disturbance of a meeting.
The defendants are: Mohamed Mohy-Eldeen Abdelgany, 24; Khalid Bahgat Akari, 19; Aslam Abbasi Akhtar, 24; Joseph Tamim Haider, 23; Taher Mutaz Herzallah, 21; Shaheen Waleed Nassar, 21; Mohammad Uns Qureashi, 19; Ali Mohammad Sayeed, 24; Osama Ahmen Shabaik, 22; and Asaad Mohamedidris Traina, 20.
In July 2011, Hakim Nasreddine Kebir, 21, accepted a plea negotiation offered by the People. His case will be dismissed upon completion of 40 hours community service.
The incident (described below) occurred Feb. 8, 2010, on the campus of UCI. Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren (Ambassador Oren) was the featured speaker at a meeting co-sponsored by multiple organizations including Anteaters for Israel, UCI’s School of Law, Department of Political Science, and Center for the Study of Democracy. Approximately 500 to 700 people had assembled for the meeting. Seven of the defendants were students at UCI and Akari, Herzallah, and Nassar were students at University of California, Riverside.
Remarks by District Attorney Tony Rackauckas
“Today, an Orange County jury sent 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.
“It does not matter if we agree with the speech, or even if we find the speaker offensive. It does not matter who the speaker is, or who is shutting him down.
“In this case, there was a meticulous, written conspiracy among members of the Muslim Students Union (MSU) to disrupt a speaker’s right to speak and the audiences’ right to listen and ask questions at the end. The defendants decided it was ‘our university’ and they got to decide who spoke, not only at University of California, Irvine (UCI), but all over our nation. They planned the ‘shutdown,’ calculating who was willing to get arrested, but betting that UCI police would likely not act.
“One of the many emails stated that ‘… we will not allow a platform for him to spread his lies on our campus, whether it be at UCI or any other campus around the nation. I ask you all to come out in support and solidarity and to help us ensure that our voices be heard, and that Michael Oren and any other Israeli politician knows that we will not allow them to come here to our campuses and make excuses for what they are doing to the Palestinians.’
“There were many who legally protested and voiced their opinions that night, but only those who conspired to violate the law were prosecuted. After the event, the defendants tried to cover up the fact that MSU had coordinated the conspiracy.
“This is censorship by a few and it is illegal. The defendants acted as censors to block the free flow of ideas and infringed on the rights of 700 people, who had gone to the campus that evening to hear Israeli Ambassador Oren.
“History tells us of the dire consequences when one group is allowed to shout down and intimidate another or a group of people so as to not allow them to have opinions or be heard. History requires us to draw a line in the sand against this sort of organized thuggery.
“In a civilized society, we cannot allow lawful assemblies to be shut down by a small group of people using the heckler’s veto.”
Law Concerning Disturbance of a Meeting or Assembly (Penal Code § 403)
Penal Code § 403, entitled, “Disturbance of assembly or meeting,” states: “Every person who, without authority of law, willfully disturbs or breaks up any assembly or meeting that is not unlawful in its character … is guilty of a misdemeanor.”
The California Supreme Court stated (In re Kay (1970) 1 Cal. 3rd 930, 946) that the section required that the defendant substantially impaired the conduct of the meeting by intentionally committing acts in violation of implicit customs or usages or of explicit rules for governance of the meeting, of which he knew, or as a reasonable man should have known. “Substantial impairment” was determined by the “actual impact” on the course of the meeting, such activity, when it is intentional and when it “substantially impairs the conduct of a meeting, violates section 403.” Finally, a violation of Penal Code § 403 does not require that a defendant’s conduct create a clear and present danger of violent conduct on the part of the defendant or of others or that it endangered public safety and order.
Law Concerning Conspiracy (Penal Code § 182) and Proof by Circumstantial Evidence
Penal Code § 182 renders it unlawful for “two or more persons [to] conspire to commit any crime.” It further states, “Conspiracy is a specific intent crime requiring an intent to agree or conspire, and a further intent to commit the target crime … ” with at least one overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy be committed by one or more of the parties to the conspiracy.
Evidence of an express agreement is not necessary. Acts, circumstances, or statements which occurred before or during the formation of the conspiracy, or acts or conduct evidencing a common design or plan, may prove the conspiracy.
The U.S. Supreme Court has found that the relationships and associations of the parties involved may be religious, and if a relevant circumstance to the existence of a conspiracy, are not barred from admission by constitutional provisions guaranteeing freedom of religion. (People v. Bautista (2008) 163 Cal. App. 4th 762, 784, quoting U.S. Supreme Court in Dawson v. Delaware (1992) 503 U.S. 159, 156)
The conspiracy charge could be filed as a felony. After taking into consideration all of the facts and circumstances of this case, the OCDA has exercised its discretion to file this count as a misdemeanor.
Circumstances of the Conspiracy
On Feb. 2, 2010, Abdelgany, president of the Muslim Student Union (MSU) at UCI, met with other members of the MSU-UCI elected governing board to discuss options to respond to the upcoming speech by Ambassador Oren, which was to be held six days later.
On Feb. 3, 2010, MSU-UCI members held a general assembly meeting regarding their decision to disrupt the speech of Ambassador Oren. Abdelgany sent an e-mail to the MSU-UCI Message Board announcing that “we will be staging a University of Chicago Style disruption of the Ambassador’s speech.”
On Feb. 4, 2010, an unknown co-conspirator sent an e-mail to the MSU-UCI Message Board announcing an “Emergency planning meeting for Israeli Ambassador Event.”
On Feb. 5, 2010, members of the MSU-UCI held an “Israeli Ambassador Protest Logistical Meeting” wherein a “Final Plan” for the disruption of Ambassador Oren’s speech was formulated.
On Feb. 6, 2010, Abdelgany sent an e-mail to the MSU-UCI Message Board containing the “Game Plan” for the disruption of the Israeli Ambassador’s event and an admonishment to “not share this e-mail with others.”
On the same day, Abdelgany e-mailed the MSU-UCI elected governing board and defendants Haider, Sayeed, and Shabaik. Abdelgany advised in the e-mail that “to the outside,” the disruption of the Ambassador Oren’s speech was to be portrayed as done by individuals, not the MSU, in order to “put up an obstacle” against the UCI administration in case it was to “come after MSU” following the disruption.
On Feb. 7, 2010, Abdelgany sent an e-mail to the MSU-UCI Message Board advising “nondisruptors” to cheer after each “disruptor” is finished. He found a volunteer to print statements and paste them on index cards to be used for the disruption of Ambassador Oren’s speech.
Execution of the Conspiracy
On Feb. 8, 2010, UCI Professor Mark Petracca opened the meeting and explained that Ambassador Oren would speak for approximately 25 minutes and then take questions and answers. He admonished the large audience that he expected and relished “spirited discussion” with the “highest expectation for civility and respect.” All of the defendants were in the audience. The meeting and disruption by the defendants was captured on video.
After Ambassador Oren was introduced, he spoke eight sentences when Shabaik disrupted Ambassador Oren’s speech by standing up and shouting, “Michael Oren, propagating murder is not free speech.” There was applause and crowd disruption. Professor Petracca again admonished the attendees of the meeting to be polite and courteous because the Ambassador was a guest.
Ambassador Oren began again and Traina disrupted Ambassador Oren’s speech by standing up and shouting, “Zionism is not an…” before being drowned out by the crowd and being escorted out by police.
Ambassador Oren continued for seven sentences when Haider disrupted Ambassador Oren’s speech by standing up and shouting, “Israel is guilty of a hundred and one…Palestine…” before being drowned out by the crowd and being escorted out by police.
Professor Petracca expressed his embarrassment and stated, “Shame on you. This is not an example of free speech.” He reminded the audience that there were hundreds of people present and that there was a question and answer period at the end of the speech when they would have the opportunity to express their opinions.
Ambassador Oren continued for two sentences when Qureashi disrupted Ambassador Oren’s speech by standing and shouting, “Freedom ...” before being drowned out by the crowd and being escorted out by police. He also shouted, “Michael Oren you are a war criminal,” twice as he was being led out.
Ambassador Oren left the stage at this time and did not return for 15 minutes. Professor Petracca spoke before UCI Chancellor Michael Drake came to the podium to express his desire to hear from Ambassador Oren and admonish the audience that “free speech” was not “heckling.” He also expressed his embarrassment.
After more than five minutes, Professor Petracca and Chancellor Drake returned to the podium, admonishing the audience not to latke lightly the great freedoms enjoyed in America, such as the freedom of speech. Chancellor Drake stated, “We must respect those freedoms or else they are taken away from us.”
Ambassador Oren returned to the podium and continued for 10 sentences, including stating that the Middle East had a culture of hospitality, when Sayeed disrupted Ambassador Oren’s speech by standing up and shouting, “…schools…murderer…” before being drowned out by the crowd and being escorted out by police.
Ambassador Oren continued for another 10 sentences when Herzallah disrupted Ambassador Oren’s speech by standing and shouting, “It’s a shame this University has sponsored a mass murderer like yourself.”
Ambassador Oren continued for seven sentences, explaining the historical perspective of our Founding Fathers’ support of Israel, when Akari disrupted Ambassador Oren’s speech by standing up and shouting as he looked at his index cards, “Your country committed acts of crime…in the most densely populated area of the world…women and children and women…” before being drowned out by the crowd and being escorted out by police.
Ambassador Oren continued for 12 sentences when Nassar disrupted Ambassador Oren’s speech by standing and shouting as he looked at his index cards, “You sir are an accomplice to genocide…As an occupying power, Israel has a responsibility to take care of the Palestinian civilian population…Down with the Zionist genocidal machine. Down with Israel.”
Professor Petracca came back to the podium to tell the audience that the campus police were making arrests.
Ambassador Oren continued for one sentence when Abdelgany disrupted Ambassador Oren’s speech by standing and shouting, “Michael Oren, propagating murder is not an expression of free speech.”
Ambassador Oren continued for 17 sentences when Akhtar disrupted Ambassador Oren’s speech by standing and shouting, “Michael Oren, murder is not free speech.”
Unknown speakers in the room shouted “murderer” and other epitaphs. Kebir disrupted Ambassador Oren’s speech by beginning a loud chant with the words, “Whose University?”
After 35 minutes had passed from the opening of the speech, Ambassador Oren had only spoken for two minutes and 21 seconds. The loud, calculated disruptions caused turmoil and total stoppages of the speech. The audience was distracted, unable to hear, had lowered comprehension, and many were frightened. They were deprived of the opportunity to ask questions, as the question and answer portion was cancelled.
All 10 defendants were arrested, cited, and released.
At 11:30 p.m. on Feb. 8, 2010, after the disruptions had been executed, Abdelgany sent an e-mail stating, “Remember, MSU did not officially put this on…it was individual students.”
On Feb. 9, 2010, a media campaign was launched to argue that “MSU was not involved.” A spokesperson told the LA Times that the disruption was “not put on by MSU.” The campus newspaper at UCI quoted, “MSU did NOT organize the protest.”
On Feb. 14, 2010, another e-mail stated that the “issue is sensitive; do not share MSU e-mails or anything from MSU meetings.”
Assistant District Attorney Dan Wagner is prosecuting this case.