April 5th, 2007

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Light their towels on fire

Yale trio charged in flag burning incident

-NEW HAVEN — Three Yale University students are charged with burning an American flag hanging from the porch of a Chapel Street home early Tuesday in the Wooster Square neighborhood.

When detained by police a few blocks away, they allegedly acknowledged it was a "dumb thing to do," according to a police report on the incident.

Hyder Akbar Said, 23, Nikolaos Angelopoulos, 19, and Farhad Anklesaria, also 19, were arrested on a range of charges including two counts of first-degree reckless endangerment, third-degree criminal mischief, second-degree arson, breach of peace, and conspiracy to commit second-degree arson.

Police listed Hyder’s last name as Akbar Said, while Yale has him listed as just Hyder Akbar.

The three students spent the night in jail and appeared dazed at their arraignment Tuesday morning when they entered Superior Court in leg irons and handcuffs. Bail was kept at $25,000 for Angelopoulos and Akbar, but was reduced to $15,000 for Anklesaria. They remained jailed Tuesday night.

Superior Court Judge William Holden rebuffed requests by Deputy Assistant Public Defender Sanford O. Bruce III that the three men be released on a written promise to appear, since none of them had previous arrests.

"Is there probable cause to believe a crime was committed? Yes. Is the (alleged) crime of a serious nature? Yes," Holden said in maintaining the higher bail.

In Angelopoulos’ case, Assistant State’s Attorney Karen Roberg said, "He had a lighter on his person."

Roberg added the arson charges to the initial police charges, substituting it for reckless burning. She refused to explain why, when asked by a reporter.

The two freshmen, Anklesaria and Angelopoulos are foreign students: Anklesaria is British and Angelopoulos is Greek. Akbar, a senior, was born in Pakistan, according to police, but is a U.S. citizen. Both Anklesaria and Angelopoulos had to turn over their passports.

Marc Suraci, 37, owner of the two-story house on Chapel Street where the flag was burned, was upset when informed of the incident by the Register.

He said he always puts flags out front of his rental properties.

"It makes me sick to my stomach to think that someone would burn the American flag," said Suraci, who described himself as "very, very patriotic."

Suraci said several of his relatives fought in American wars to defend the constitutional right to burn the flag as a protest.

"But, it gets to another level when it is somebody else’s flag on their own personal property," Suraci said. He feels flag burning should be illegal.

According to the police report, the students had two encounters with officers.

Officers Stephanija Van Wilgen and Diane Gonzalez were responding to an unrelated call in Fair Haven at about 3 a.m., when they saw the three young men walking on Chapel Street on the bridge into Fair Haven.

They flagged the officers down, said they had been at a friend’s house and asked how to get to back to Elm and High streets downtown, police said. The officers gave directions and continued to the call.

A short time later, the two officers returned to Chapel Street to see if the students had found their way home.

"As they approached 512 Chapel, there was a glow in front of the house which they identified as a flag mounted on a pole to the house and it was engulfed in flames," said police spokeswoman Bonnie Posick. They noticed the three students were a few blocks away.

Van Wilgen pulled down the burning flag to prevent the fire from spreading and Gonzalez tracked down the three men.

The three students admitted igniting the flag, according to the police report, which doesn’t indicate if they gave any reason.

Akbar was wearing a hooded sweatshirt that read in bold letters, "I am Famous in Afghanistan," according to police. The political science major was quoted in a Yale Daily News story last year that he was a native of Afghanistan.

Thomas Conroy, spokesman for the university, said Yale was aware of the incident and officials either had been or would be in contact with the students.

Friends of the two freshmen were shocked when told of the arrests and found the situation totally out of character. Neither was seen as particularly political.

"It would never have occurred to me about either Nick or Farhad. We have political discussions all the time and he is definitely a moderate," said freshman Matthew Smith of Angelopoulos. "Wow. That’s a night that went wrong," Jason Gilliland said.

William Dunlop, a law professor at Quinnipiac University, said it sounds like the situation described in the arrest has nothing to do with Texas v. Johnson, the Supreme Court case that struck down a law that made it a crime to burn a flag.

"Based on the facts as I understand them, this is not conduct that’s protected by the First Amendment. They are being prosecuted under a statute of general implication that prohibits destroying other people’s property and endangering buildings," Dunlop said. "It doesn’t raise constitutional issues."

It's time to rally up the lynch mob and hang these three wankers. It's sorta ironic really. It's usually hippies who get the chance to turn everything into a broader statement of racism or hate crimes. I'm fully willing to believe that this might have simply been a case of college students being stupid with no intent beyond general idiocy but it's too good of a case to turn aside. Instead, I want to see us ride this case like a hobby horse and see if we can count ocup and collect a few scalps. It might provide some small degree of balance.