Chicago Sun-Times: Protesters plead guilty but claim victory

Four activists accused of fighting with police during a raucous immigration protest in Arlington Heights were sentenced Tuesday to court supervision and community service work after they pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery.

But once they stepped outside the Cook County courtroom, the four Chicago residents quickly claimed victory and denied any wrongdoing during last fall’s demonstration.

“We did nothing wrong on Oct. 15,” said Cindy Gomez, one of the activists who accepted the plea deal with prosecutors to avoid a trial. “We stand by everything we did.”

Rehana Khan (left) is congratulated by Airam Chaudhry on Tuesday. Khan said she is considering suing Arlington Heights because police removed her head scarf last year. (AL PODGORSKI/SUN-TIMES) “We feel the agreement we came to was an important victory,” added Kara Norlander, another of the demonstrators arrested last fall as they protested outside a meeting of the Chicago Minutemen Project.

Rallied against Minutemen

The guilty pleas may not end the legal action stemming from the demonstration. Rehana Khan, one of the activists, is weighing a civil lawsuit against Arlington Heights, saying that while arresting her, police officers forcibly removed her religious head scarf.

The claims of a legal victory rankled prosecutors and Arlington Heights officials, who said the guilty pleas speak louder than the statements made afterward.

“It’s absurd to suggest they were innocent when they in fact pleaded guilty,” Assistant State’s Attorney Lance Northcutt said.

The four charged were among a group of several hundred demonstrators who gathered last fall outside the Christian Liberty Academy to protest a meeting of the Minuteman Project, a group that opposes illegal immigration.

Critics say the group — which provides volunteers to patrol the nation’s borders — is a racist organization that encourages vigilante action against immigrants crossing into the United States from Mexico.

Resisting arrest charges dropped

Arlington Heights police arrested five people during the rally, saying they blocked an entrance to the building, then hit or struggled with officers trying to remove them. Charged with battery and resisting arrest were Gomez, 28; Norlander, 24; Khan, 23; Eric Zenke, 18, and Marco Quiroz-Rojas. All were in court Tuesday for the expected start of their trial except Quiroz-Rojas, a Chicago man who disappeared after being released on bail.

In the plea bargain, Gomez, Norlander, Khan and Zenke pleading guilty to battery, while prosecutors agreed to drop the resisting arrest charges. Judge Hyman Riebman sentenced each to one year of court supervision and ordered each to do 240 hours of community service work. They had faced a maximum sentence of a year in jail.

Arlington Heights Village Attorney Ernest Blomquist said he was satisfied with the plea deal, but a Minutemen leader ripped the punishment as too lax. “I’m just sorry they weren’t thrown into prison for 10 years for assaulting police,” said Rosanna Pulido, a co-founder of the Chicago Minutemen Project.

Khan, a college student, said she felt her “religious rights” were violated when officers removed the hijab, or religious head scarf, she was wearing during the protest. “It is very disrespecting,” she said.

Arlington Heights police defended their handling of the protest and said Khan’s head scarf had to be removed as a security precaution because it could have covered a weapon or dangerous object. “We’re pleased with the way our officers responded,” Capt. Jerry Lambert said.

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