US man pleads not guilty to arson, hate crime at California mosque

SAN FRANCISCO (REUTERS) - A 23-year-old man suspected of setting a fire at a Southern California mosque in a hate attack following the massacre of 14 people by a Muslim couple pleaded not guilty on Wednesday (Dec 16), officials said.

Carl James Dial pleaded not guilty to charges of arson, burglary and committing a hate crime in connection with the Dec 11 fire at the entrance of Islamic Society of the Coachella Valley, the Riverside County District Attorney's Office said.

The authorities said the fire caused no injuries. But it charred the building's stucco front entrance, leaving it with chunks of plaster torn out and littered with debris.

The local Desert Sun newspaper reported on Wednesday (Dec 16) that Dial's parents are seeking a lawyer to take the case, which they said was complex, pro bono.

Carl James Dial pleaded not guilty to charges of arson, burglary and committing a hate crime in connection with the  Dec 11 fire at the entrance of a Southern California mosque. PHOTO: REUTERS 

The blaze heightened concerns about an anti-Islamic backlash in the wake of the Dec 2 massacre of 14 people by US-born Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and his Pakistani-born wife, Tashfeen Malik, 29, at a holiday party in San Bernardino, about 121km north-west of Coachella.

The FBI has said it is treating the shooting as an act of terrorism, citing the couple's declaration that they were acting on behalf of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group.

On his Facebook page, Dial made a number of references to Islamic State, such as on Oct 31 when he wrote that he was watching execution videos by the militant group.

He also overlayed his profile picture with the French flag, as have many Facebook users in response to ISIS' coordinated series of shootings and suicide bombings in Paris that killed 130 people last month.

The district attorney's office said Dial was set next to appear in court on Dec 28 for a conference. If convicted, he could face a maximum sentence of 11 years and four months in prison, the office said.

He remains held in the Indio Jail on bail of US$150,000 (S$212,000), the district attorney's office said.

President Barack Obama will travel on Friday (Dec 18) to San Bernardino, the White House said on Wednesday (Dec 16).