NEW YORK: New York City police said yesterday they were questioning a man about the fatal shooting of a Muslim cleric and his associate after prayers at a mosque in the borough of Queens, an attack that many in their Bangladeshi community insisted was a hate crime. The man was detained on unrelated circumstances and has not been charged in the killings, a police spokesman said. Earlier, local media, including NBC News and the New York Daily News, said the man was a suspect, citing unnamed police sources.
Police have yet to establish a motive behind Saturday’s killings and have said there was no evidence the men were targeted because of their faith but nothing was being ruled out. But residents and activists have demanded authorities treat the brazen daylight shooting as a crime linked to the men’s Islamic or ethnic identity. “Muslim community members feel the double-homicide was a hate crime, even though the NYPD has not labeled it as such,” said the International Action Center (IAC), which describes itself as an anti-war and social justice advocacy group.
The emailed IAC statement announced an outdoor funeral on Monday for the two men in the Ozone Park section of Queens, near the site of the slayings. The victims, identified as Imam Maulana Akonjee, 55, and Thara Uddin, 64, appeared to have been targeted. The men, who wore religious garb, were shot a couple of blocks from the Al-Furqan Jame Mosque, from where they had just left afternoon prayers. The gunman stalked them from behind and shot in the head at close range at about 1:50 pm (1750 GMT) on Saturday, police said. Officers found them bleeding in the street and took them to a hospital where they were pronounced dead.
“While we do not yet know the motivation for the murders of Maulama Akonjee and Thara Uddin, we do know that our Muslim communities are in the perpetual crosshairs of bigotry,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement. “Rest assured that our NYPD will bring this killer to justice.” Ozone Park, a diverse, largely working-class neighborhood, is home to a growing number of Muslims of Bangladeshi descent.
Millat Uddin, 57, an Ozone Park resident not related to the one of the victims, said both men were born in Bangladesh. He said he was close to Akonjee, describing him as a “docile, calm” father of seven who was beloved in the neighborhood. Akonjee was carrying $1,000 in cash with him at the time of the attack but the money was not taken, the New York Times reported, suggesting robbery may not have been a motive.
‘Makes All Muslims Scared’
Police released a sketch of a male suspect with dark hair, a beard, glasses, and of medium complexion. He appeared to be in his 30s or 40s. NBC reported the man being questioned matched the description. Witnesses saw the assailant, dressed in a dark shirt and blue shorts, fleeing with a gun in his hand, police said. Surveillance footage showed the suspect following the victims. The shooting appeared to be the most violent attack against local Muslim leaders in recent years, said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a civil rights and advocacy group.
CAIR has offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the shooter. Hooper said he could recall incidents in which an imam was pushed, called names or otherwise harassed. “Things like that, but nothing of this nature, nothing where people were killed,” he said. – Reuters