A Fairfax County judge yesterday sentenced 12 Libyan protesters to a year in jail for their part in the December takeover of a Libyan student aid center in McLean.
Judge Barnard F. Jennings issued the sentence despite recommendations from 11 probation officers and the county prosecutor that the Libyans be given fines and be ordered to pay restitution, but that they not be given jail terms for the misdemeanor offenses.
"What you did is a lot more than just vandalism," Jennings told the Libyans during yesterday's sentencing hearing in Fairfax Circuit Court. "There is no excuse and no justification for what you did."
Jennings told the men they had received a "break" when prosecutors asked a grand jury to indict them on misdemeanor charges of unlawful assembly, destroying private property and assault rather than on the original felony charges, which included abduction.
The judge imposed a 12-month jail term--the maximum allowed under law--on the men for each of the three charges and he ordered that the terms be served concurrently. The men could be eligible for parole after serving about four months, said Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr.
Each of the Libyans had pleaded guilty to the charges.
The men seized the McLean offices of the People's Committee of Students of Libyan Arab Jamahiriya Inc. on Dec. 22 in what they said was a protest against Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi.
The protesters contend the center is used by Qaddafi to spy on Libyan students, a charge the center denies. Officials of the center say it is a private corporation that provides scholarships to Libyan students.
Although nobody was injured in the nine-hour takeover, the protesters did extensive damage to the center's offices, dumping files on the floor and spray-painting slogans on the walls, police photographs showed.
"I was rather shocked by the decision," said Don Ferrell, one of the Libyans' attorneys. "They [the Libyans] were totally confused."
Horan said he also was surprised by the sentence. He had told Jennings in court, "I'm going to bow to the overwhelming recommendation [of the probation officers] that a fine and restitution ought to be the penalty."
Eleven of the 12 Libyans charged in the incident appeared in court yesterday.
Another defendant is being held in a Wisconsin jail on unrelated charges, Horan said. The 11 men were led to jail by deputies immediately after the hearing.
"We had no choice but doing it," one Libyan told Jennings yesterday. "We were defending ourselves, but according to American law, that was not the proper way to do it."
"I expect a number of people in the United States are sympathetic to you," Jennings said.
"But I don't think that's anything I can really consider in this case. Whatever the political reasons, you violated the law."