By Tori Richards
SANTA ANA, Calif (Reuters) - Ten Muslim college students in California were convicted and sentenced to probation on Friday for disrupting a speech at their university by Israel's ambassador to the United States.
The students, whose case touched off a furor over free speech rights at the University of California at Irvine, were also ordered to perform 56 hours of community service by an Orange County Superior Court judge.
A jury of six men and six women convicted the students of one count each of conspiracy and disturbing an assembly after an eight-day trial -- a verdict that was greeted by wails and sobbing from spectators in a packed courtroom in Santa Ana.
The convicted students were each placed on three years' probation by Superior Court Judge Peter J. Wilson, but could have that reduced to a year if they complete the community service by January 31.
Charges have been tentatively dismissed against an 11th defendant.
The case stems from a protest organized by the Muslim Student Union at UC Irvine of a February 2010 speech there by Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States.
Prosecutors said the students interrupted his appearance by yelling insults such as, "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.
One of the 10 convicted students, Mohammad Qureashi, 21, told Reuters after the sentencing that he was "proud to be an American" despite the verdicts. Qureashi said he was born in the United States to Pakistani parents.
"I would never have thought in my craziest nightmares that something like this would make you a criminal," Qureashi said.
ACLU SAYS TROUBLED BY VERDICTS
Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said the students had conspired to deprive Oren of his right to free speech, and had planned their protest weeks in advance to make sure the ambassador would not be heard at the university.
"The defense decided it was their university and they would decide who was going to speak at the university. They were betting the UCI police wouldn't do anything about it," Rackauckas said.
The case drew an outcry from civil liberties advocates and Southern California's Muslim community, who said the students were unfairly singled out for prosecution because of their religion.
"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.
Hector Villagra, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said in a statement he was deeply troubled by the convictions.
"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," Villagra said.
Shalom Elcott, president and CEO the Jewish Federation and Family Services, which sponsored Oren's visit, called the verdict a "landmark" in the history of anti-Israel activity on U.S. university campuses.
"For years the Muslim Student Union has been perpetrating hate speech on campus and pushing the limit on what is considered acceptable and civil discourse in the university setting," Elcott said in a statement on the group's website.
"UCI was the first to implement punitive measures on the MSU by issuing a one-year suspension of the organization in 2010, and now the Orange County courts have quickly followed by holding accountable the individuals involved," he said.
(Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)