A federal judge on Wednesday briefly barred some Islamic school students from the courtroom, saying their presence may have been a ploy for the defendants affiliated with the school to get sympathy with the jury.
The unusual move came 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 Muslim head coverings arrived on a field trip from the Razi School, a private school in Queens funded 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, criticized the judge as being “out of line here.”
Musawi claimed that the trip on the day of the trial was coincidental and was timed to take place before exams started later in the week. He said the purpose of the trip was to learn about the legal system, not to build jury sympathy for the Alavi Foundation.
Forrest had already admonished the charity’s lawyer once for saying during his opening arguments that the U.S. wants to impose the “death penalty” on the foundation.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Martin Bell and Michael Lockard ultimately advised the judge that it was a public courtroom and they did not oppose the students’ courtroom visit. The youngsters then 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 the children and victims of terrorism “is that the former are wearing head scarves and are easily identifiable.”
“That is offensive, inappropriate, so offensive, so inappropriate that it is breathtaking,” Forrest said.