After admitting to taking a set of international flags from the poles at the Cyril E. King Airport and replacing them with black flags a year ago, 30-year-old Alla H. Salem of St. Thomas was sentenced to no more time behind bars.
Superior Court Judge Renee Gumbs-Carty pronounced the sentence as Salem stood at the defense table, facing the bench. Moments before he apologized for the actions he took on June 29, 2018, and said was willing to accept the penalty to come.
The sentence: four years in prison, all suspended, replaced by supervised probation. A fine of $2,000 plus payment of $575 in court fees. He was also ordered to report as scheduled to the Department of Health Division of Mental Health, to take medication, as directed, perform 200 hours of community service and complete enrollment at the University of the Virgin Islands.
Salem was given credit for time served after his arrest.
A wave of dismay swept the Virgin Islands when images of black flags scrawled with white Arabic letters atop flagpoles circulated through regular and social media. Clergy convened community meetings to denounce whoever took the flags usually seen at the airport entrance. Defense Attorney Rosh D. Alger admitted the actions taken by his clients raised an alarm in society.
“There was a sense of danger from my client’s actions, a threat under the banner of Islam,” Alger said. But, he said, there was an underlying reason; something Salem admitted. He suffered from mental illness and, at the time, was unmedicated.
Prosecutor Alexandria Bynum questioned whether mental illness was being used to cover irresponsible behavior.
“If he had mental health issues, he had an obligation to get medication,” she said.
But Alger quickly asserted at the sentencing hearing that in spite of personal challenges, the defendant’s Islamic faith should not be factored into the penalty.
“No one shall be punished because he or she is a member of religion,” the defense attorney said.
Gumbs-Carty said the sentence reflected Salem’s willingness to take responsibility for his actions and his completion of psychiatric evaluation and treatment through the Division of Mental Health. But moments later the judge spoke bluntly to the underlying offense.
“The court chastises him for his actions of June 29. Mr. Salem, you cannot force anyone to worship your god, you understand that?” Gumbs-Carty said.
“Yes, your honor,” the defendant said.
“The court sees that you are remorseful. What actions do you plan to take to see that this doesn’t happen again?”
Salem said he wanted to return to operating his small business and would complete his application to attend UVI. He agreed to keep seeing a psychiatrist and take the medication prescribed to him, and to report to the Division of Mental Health.
During the hearing Bynum also noted that the flags taken from the airport flagpole display were returned. For that reason, the court ruled that no restitution would be required.