The room was packed full of people who gathered to applaud an unlikely bunch: a group of men who had been convicted of misdemeanors less than 48 hours ago.
The men -- part of the “Irvine 11" found guilty of disrupting a speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren—told those gathered at the Islamic Institute of Orange County of their activism and expressed gratitude for community support. At one point, the nine men stood to applause.
On Friday, a jury found the 10 Muslim students guilty after deliberating for two days. A judge sentenced the men to community service, probation time and fines. Charges against an 11th defendant will be dropped pending completion of community service.
The students were in support of the Palestinian cause, and shouted phrases such as “You sir, are an accomplice to genocide,” at Oren during the event, held at UC Irvine.
The case generated a national debate regarding free speech, and defense attorneys plan to appeal the convictions.
“I assure you that this case is going to affect my children, your children and generations to come,” said Samer Soubra, vice chair of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, a co-sponsor of the event.
Rev. Sarah Halverson of Fairview Community Church in Costa Mesa thanked the students for their “bravery,” but said as a Christian, she is outraged by the convictions.
“Folks, we know that Islamophobia is alive and well in Orange County,” she said.
The defendants downplayed attempts to portray them as heroes.
“I honestly don’t see myself as a hero,” said Khalid Akari.
Akari said he had the support of his family, lawyers and the others involved.
“I never had to stand alone in this,” he said.
Besides the students, three of their lawyers and community leaders spoke. The event coincided with customary evening prayers. Shortly after the event began, after sunset and following the panel, people went into a nearby room to pray, kneeling on the floor.
Attorney Reem Salahi said what is noble about the students actions wasn’t just the interruption of the speech.
“The reason they are heroes in my mind is because they had the strength to fight it,” she said, then recalled the investigation process, from search warrants to an indictment.
Mohamed Abdelgany, said the most “heart touching” thing about the case has been how it has brought the Muslim community together.
“We are OK, we really are,” he said. “I just wanted to relate that.”
Walid Nassar, the father of Shaheen Nassar, said his son is not a hero.
“He was just doing his job,” he said. “He’s not the first one and he’s not going to be the last one.”