CAIRO - Ten Muslim students have been sentenced to probation for disrupting a speech by an Israeli diplomat at a California university, to the outrage of civil rights groups, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
"Absolutely unbelievable," Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, said.
"I believe the heart of America has died today."
A jury sentenced the ten Muslim students to three years' probation for disrupting Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael B. Oren's speech at the University of California last year.
The students were also ordered to perform 56 hours of community service by an Orange County Superior Court judge.
The judge also ruled that the students' probation sentence could be reduced to a year if they complete the community service by January 31.
An 11th student has been cleared of any charges.
The case stems from a protest organized by the Muslim Student Union at UC Irvine of a February 2010 speech there by the Israeli diplomat.
Prosecutors said the students interrupted Oren's appearance by yelling "It's a shame this university has sponsored a mass murderer like yourself."
Defense lawyers said they would appeal the convictions, saying their clients, all honor students who already did volunteer work in their communities, had the right to carry out the kind of protest that is common on college campuses.
"I would never have thought in my craziest nightmares that something like this would make you a criminal," Mohamed Qureashi, one of the convicted students, told Reuters.
Qureashi, who was born in the US to Pakistani parents, however, said that he was "proud to be an American" despite the verdict.
The ruling has sparked outrage from civil rights groups.
"Already at UCI there's an intense level of anti-Muslim sentiment, and this verdict chills free speech and activism and sends a message around the country that Muslim students are going to be treated differently from other students who protest," said Ameena Mirza Qazi, deputy executive director of the greater Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, reported Reuters.
Similar outbursts have occurred during speeches by Israeli officials on other college campuses, none prompted disciplinary actions from either the college or law enforcement officials.
Muslim students say that they have faced stricter scrutiny from the administration than other student groups and that they, too, face harsh language.
In 2009, several students complained about a large poster on campus comparing the Muslim Student Union to Hamas and Hizbullah. A similar flier included a photograph of several students.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California said it was troubled by the anti-Muslim ruling.
"If allowed to stand, this will undoubtedly intimidate students in Orange County and across the state and discourage them from engaging in any controversial speech or protest for fear of criminal charges," said executive director Hector Villagra.
Reproduced with permission from OnIslam.net