'Irvine 11' plead not guilty in disruption

SANTA ANA — Orange County prosecutors didn't flinch Friday when a group of university student activists charged with disturbing an Israeli ambassador's speech last year at UC Irvine brought more than 60 supporters with them to court, a contingent the activists hope to see them through the legal process.

Instead, prosecutors filed a motion to release grand jury transcripts from their investigation and handed the media copies of court filings illustrating point by point how the university students — since dubbed "the Irvine 11" — allegedly conspired to disrupt Ambassador Michael Oren's Feb. 8, 2010, speech at UCI, then cover it up afterward.

"They're caught red-handed," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Dan Wagner outside of the courtroom. "They very intentionally tried to shut down this meeting."

Prosecutors have charged eight former or current UCI students and three UC Riverside students with misdemeanor conspiracy to commit a crime and misdemeanor disruption of a meeting. Seven of the 11, who are in their late teens and early 20s, were in court Friday afternoon and pleaded not guilty. Attorneys pleaded not guilty on behalf of the other four.

In tow with the defendants were dozens of supporters, a smaller but still significantly sized group than last month's first court hearing who filled up the courtroom and the halls outside during the proceedings. Many of them were involved in earlier protests calling for prosecutors to stop investigating the Irvine 11, and then to drop the charges.

"This isn't about the war on Gaza; it's about democracy here," said defense attorney Jacqueline Goodman. "It was a principled protest by top students … they're fighting for all of us."

"We need more students like this," added defense attorney Dan Stormer.

The defense claims the students acted independently, but a motion from prosecutors released Friday suggests the disruption was organized by UCI's Muslim Student Union, which is on campus probation because of the incident.

An e-mail distributed to the school's MSU board with minutes from their meeting days before the protests shows they considered Oren's speaking as "sending [the] message that this is an Israeli campus again" and that they will conduct a "Chicago-style" protest to "disrupt the whole event" and "shut down with individual disruption."

Altogether, 11 students rose and shouted at Oren during the protest before being walked out escorted by police. Prosecutors said Oren was able to speak for three minutes in his first half hour at the podium because of protestors.

An e-mail from one of the defendants to protestors two days before the Oren speech reminds them to only shout scripted comments, nothing ad-libbed.

"Remember that this is a planned calculated response and not a venting session," defendant Mohamed Abdelgany, 23, wrote, according to court documents.

E-mails also show in the days after Oren's speech, the group urged protestors to disavow any involvement by MSU, records show.

Defense attorneys declined to comment on the alleged evidence until they review the motion.

The parties are due back at Santa Ana's Central Justice Center May 13 to argue before Superior Court Judge Peter J. Wilson whether portions of the grand jury investigation should be unsealed in the case. Defense attorneys have until May 6 to file their opposition to the proposal.

The defense is scheduled to argue why the district attorney's office should be recused from the case June 17. They claim prosecutors showed bias leading up to the charges.

Defendants point to an internal e-mail in the D.A.'s office where the case is referred to as the "UCI Muslim Case" in their claim that the students are being charged on the assumption that they follow Islam.

"They're making a mountain out of something significantly less than a molehill," Wagner said.

District attorney office Chief of Staff Susan Schroeder said calling it the "UCI Muslim Case" helped delineate it from another prosecution against UCI protestors the office is handling.

The defendants face up to six months in jail, if convicted on all charges.

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