Restaurateur Satish Mehtani flipped through the pages of an elaborate scrapbook detailing his work as a humanitarian, through his organization, International Mission of Mercy.
There are pictures of him with Mother Teresa, Pope Benedict and Bill Clinton, and various Congress members and ambassadors.
There are letters of thanks for providing food and other disaster relief to people in places far and wide; Kuwaitis displaced by the 1990 Iraq invasion, recovery workers at the World Trade Center after the terror attacks, Japanese devastated by last year’s tsunami.
He has a new campaign in Nigeria to distribute thousands of clean hypodermic needles to stop the spread of HIV, and he has another new local cause: Dharun Ravi.
Ravi was convicted last month on bias intimidation and invasion of privacy charges for using a webcam to spy on his Rutgers roommate, Tyler Clementi, who was with another man. Clementi later committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge.
On Friday, Mehtani will open his Mirage banquet hall in Edison, the largest Indian catering hall in the state, to a growing force of Indian-Americans who have concerns about how the Ravi case was handled by the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office. They have also scheduled a rally outside the Statehouse on May 14, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
“This is the talk of our community,” said Mehtani, who expects about 400 people. “We Indians feel very strongly that this boy didn’t get proper justice. He was used as an example by the prosecutor, and punishment he faces does not fit the crime.”
Ravi’s case has been discussed widely in Indian language newspapers, and on EBC, a South Asian Radio station, and ITV, an Indian-American public access station in New York. Poonam Bhuchar, a Princeton immigration attorney, who has hosted the radio discussion several times, said a momentum is building.
“As people learned more about the facts of the case, there is greater concern among Indians that this boy was prosecuted harshly,” she said.
Since the verdict, an online petition on the White House website was signed by 13,749 people, and another 2,000 signed local petitions asking that the case — and the hate crime statute that seems to be subjective — be re-examined.
“We want to know why Dharun Ravi is charged with a hate crime, but the people charged with attacking an Indian family and beating the father to death are not,” said Sandeep Sharma, a business partner of Ravi’s father, referring to the case of five Old Bridge teenagers charged with killing Divendyu Sinha in 2010. Sinha and his two teenage sons were punched repeatedly in an unprovoked attack, and the trial for one of the teens is now under way.
On Tuesday morning, Ravi’s attorney Steve Altman, will file briefs seeking a new trial for Ravi, who was convicted on 15 counts of bias intimidation, privacy invasion, and related charges last month, and faces 10 years in state prison. The wide-ranging motion will claim the verdict went against the weight of evidence, and that the jury was not instructed to discount Clementi’s suicide as proof of intimidation.
The motion also cites pieces of evidence that may have shed light on Clementi’s suicide, which were withheld from the defense and ruled inadmissible. The defense will argue this evidence should have been turned over once it became known that the suicide was going to be mentioned during the trial.
The motion also asks that Ravi remain free on bail pending appeals. He is scheduled to be sentenced May 21.
Sharma said some influential people in the Indian-American community want to “bring awareness” to what they believe was a prosecution that was influenced by gay rights activists and a national outcry over misstated facts of the case.
“We’re trying to use democratic, public support to reverse what was done to Dharun,” Sharma said. “We’re trying to bring awareness and apply the same kind of pressure we believe was put on the prosecution to make an example out of Dharun.”
In the days after Clementi’s suicide, Garden State Equality, which claims to be the state’s “largest civil rights organization” with 77,000 members, put out a press release calling the case “one of the most unconscionable, hate-related deaths of a student in the history of the State of New Jersey.”
“Today we learned that a Rutgers freshman committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate and other students apparently broadcast the freshman — without his knowledge — making out with another man.” The press release also said the “video was widely disseminated.”
“These were the kind of statements that clouded the facts of the case,” Sharma said. “We now know there was no internet broadcast, no video, there still seems to be a mystery about why Tyler committed suicide. Most important, we believe our side proved Dharun didn’t act of out hate.”
Mehtani said the Indian community stood by, allowing justice to take its course, but the verdict was stunning.
“We aren’t a hateful people,” he said. “We were very offended and insulted by that verdict.”
A number of influential Indian-Americans have offered support for Ravi, including Victor Khubani, a billionaire with diverse holdings in television marketing and real estate, and Peter (Pradip) Kothari, founder of the Indian-American Business Association, who has been active in New Jersey politics for three decades.
Kothari said bias intimidation laws were designed to protect minorities from violence, and recalled vicious attacks on Indians in Jersey City and Hoboken in the 1990s, which led to the death of one man.
“Ravi did something wrong, but that does not imply a hate crime,” Kothari said. “There was no violence. For this community, which endured so much intimidation and physical violence, to see this young man accused of a hate crime is very disturbing.”