NBPD investigates what group calls racial attack

Editor's note: This version clarifies and restores comments made by Munira Syeda, spokeswoman for CAIR's Greater Los Angeles chapter office.

NEWPORT BEACH — The owner of a Newport Beach cigar lounge on Tuesday denied a claim made by a civil rights organization that he was among a group of men who beat up a Muslim taxi driver outside his business earlier this month.

Edgar Uria, who owns the La Habana Cigar Co. at 107 Palm St. on the Balboa Peninsula, where the March 19 incident was reported, told the Daily Pilot that the allegations made against him by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) were false.

"I don't understand how a respectable organization like CAIR can take the word of one individual and plaster it all over the Internet without not once contacting me or seeing a police report," Uria said.

He said he witnessed an altercation around 11 p.m. that Saturday between the taxi driver and a group of men, and tried to intervene and help the cabbie.

"I can't help but think, 'What do you do the next time?'" Uria said. "You're trying to be a good Samaritan, and it blows up in your face."

Police are investigating the incident, which was initially reported as battery, but no arrests have been made, said Newport Beach Sgt. Steve Burdette.

No arrests were made that night because of conflicting statements from the victim, suspects and witnesses, Burdette said.

At least one official with CAIR's Greater Los Angeles chapter office told reporters that the lounge's owner had helped perpetrate a racist attack on the Muslim cab driver on March 19.

CAIR officials said the organization has called on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the case as a possible hate crime directed against a Muslim.

Affad Shaikh, civil rights manager for CAIR's L.A.-area chapter, said that four men, including the business' owner, were involved in a verbal and physical attack on the cabbie, and that racial slurs were also directed at the cabbie.

"Given our concerns in the case expressed by the victim, we hope the aspects of case are looked into as a potential hate crime," Shaikh said.

CAIR claims that the driver was asked about his nationality and religion before some men started beating him up.

The driver was allegedly told, "'We're going to f--- you up the way we f---ed up your country,'" Shaikh told the Pilot.

The men beat the victim until Uria called a stop to it, saying, "We've f---ed him up enough," Shaikh had said.

According to Uria's version of events, the altercation outside of his business began between the cab driver and a second cab driver, who was Latino. The Muslim driver accused the Latino driver of stealing a passenger and began making racial slurs at the Latino, Uria said.

A group of men walking nearby overheard the slurs, and one of them, who also was Latino, began arguing with the Muslim driver, Uria said.

The Muslim driver put his palm up and in front of the Latino man's face, and the Latino man stuck him, Uria said.

The group began going after the Muslim, and Uria said he tried to pull the men off.

"That's how brawls start," Uria said. "One on one, it's not my problem. But, three on one? No one deserves to be hit like that."

After the three intoxicated men fled, the Muslim cabbie later told police Uria was the one responsible for the attack, Uria acknowledged.

Uria said he has worked hard to make his four-year-old business successful and welcoming to Middle Eastern customers with a broad selection of hookah products.

Uria said the accusations that he would physically beat someone in front of his own business were ridiculous, as that it would amount to "small-business suicide."

He is considering taking legal action against CAIR for the damage done to his business.

Responding late Tuesday to Uria's claims that contradicted what CAIR had reported and to a reporter's question about whether CAIR would ask U.S. Justice officials to drop the case, Munira Syeda, a spokeswoman for CAIR's regional office, said CAIR "did not find it necessary to do anything in regard to the investigation at this point."

As of Tuesday afternoon, CAIR had not yet received a response from the Justice Department, Syeda said.

She added that the organization is pleased that police are investigating.

"We are not an investigatory body," Syeda said. "We collected information from the victim and forwarded that onto the Police Department, asking police to investigate … We're not drawing a conclusion."

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