Some Islamic school students in New York City got a surprise civics lesson when a judge briefly barred them from a public courtroom, saying she suspected their presence was a ploy to get sympathy with the jury.
The unusual move came Wednesday at a federal courthouse in Manhattan on the second day of a civil trial in which the U.S. government is trying to seize a skyscraper it claims is secretly owned by Iran. An Iranian-American charity, the Alavi Foundation, owns 60 percent of the Fifth Avenue office tower and is fighting the U.S. government's attempt.
U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest halted testimony when 16 students in uniforms and head coverings arrived on a field trip from the Razi School, a private school in Queens that is supported by the charity.
The judge said she thought the students' presence was "gamesmanship" and she barred them from entering while she spoke with lawyers. She ultimately let the children in, just in time for them to hear a lawyer ask if the white scarves worn by 10 students were to blame for the snub. His comments angered the judge, who called them "so inappropriate that it is breathtaking."
Afterward, Sayyed Musawi, one of two social studies teachers who chaperoned the students, said, "The judge is out of line here." Musawi said he had urged the school to permit the field trip before exams started later in the week and the purpose of the trip was to learn about the legal system, not to build jury sympathy for the Alavi Foundation.
"The lawyer didn't even know me or any of the students," he told The Associated Press in an interview Friday.
Forrest had already admonished the charity's lawyer once for saying during his opening arguments that the U.S. government wants to impose the "death penalty" on the foundation. She labeled it "gamesmanship" that students from the school arrived the next day.
The judge said she would let testimony resume if the lawyers "are content to send these folks away," and view the proceedings on a TV feed in another part of the building, out of the jury's sight. But a government lawyer and an attorney for the foundation both noted it was an open courtroom. The judge broke for lunch, saying she'd research whether she could keep the children out.
Outside the courtroom, students grew quieter, realizing they were being excluded from open court, said Eman Osman, one of their social studies teachers.
"The courthouse was impressive, all the marble. The kids were eating it all up until we were stopped at the door and told we could not go in," she said.
Osman said a lawyer came out and told the youngsters — including some who participate in mock court sessions at school or the Model United Nations program — that the judge was not happy they were there.
"We were shocked. The expression on their faces looked hurt and serious," she said.
After lunch and after Assistant U.S. Attorneys Martin Bell and Michael Lockard advised the judge that it was a public courtroom and they did not oppose the students' courtroom visit, the youngsters entered, all 10 girls wearing white head scarves, part of the school's uniform.
With the students seated, attorney John Gleeson, until recently a federal judge in Brooklyn himself, sent the judge into a rage when he said the only difference between those associated with communities served by Alavi and those associated with victims of terrorism who might want to attend the trial "is that the former are wearing head scarves and they are easily identifiable."
"That is offensive, inappropriate, so offensive, so inappropriate that it is breathtaking," Forrest said.
The judge insisted she has been fine even with protesters in some cases "blanketing the courtroom" but believed Gleeson had violated her admonition in a previous order that the trial not become "a referendum on the nature and quality of Alavi's charitable works."
The U.S. government wants to turn over proceeds from a sale of the building and other properties owned by Alavi to holders of more than $5 billion in terrorism-related judgments against the government of Iran, including claims brought by the estates of victims killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said that without "extraordinary circumstances, the exclusion of a group of students would be incompatible with the public's right to know."