A 35-year-old Brooklyn man has been charged with the fatal double shooting of Imam Maulana Akonjee and his associate and friend, Thara Uddin, as they walked home following afternoon prayers at the Al-Furqan Jame Masjid mosque in Ozone Park, Queens, this past Saturday. The Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown on Aug. 15 identified the defendant as Oscar Morel of Miller Avenue, Brooklyn. Morel is presently awaiting arraignment in Queens Criminal Court on a criminal complaint charging him with one count of first-degree murder, two counts of second-degree murder and two counts of second-degree criminal possession of a weapon. If convicted, Morel faces up to life in prison without parole.
District Attorney Brown said, “The defendant is accused of the murder of a highly respected and beloved religious leader and his friend as they walked home from an afternoon prayer service. Their deaths are a devastating loss to their families and the community that they served as men of peace. I want to extend my deepest sympathy to the families of Imam Maulana Akonjee and Thara Uddin and assure them that the law enforcement community will work tirelessly to insure that justice is done in this case.”
The district attorney said the motive for the attack “is still unclear and continues to be investigated,” but the possibility that the murders could be treated as hate crimes was being explored. He added, “Crimes motivated by bias or hate are deplorable and can never be tolerated. Regardless, however, whether a hate crime was committed in this case, the crime will be vigorously prosecuted and we will seek the most serious penalties that our law allows.”
A delegation of Majlis Ash-Shura (Islamic Leadership Council) of New York and local community leaders met today with the district attorney, urging that the shooter be charged with murder in the first degree, as he eventually was. According to a statement released by the council, “The community strongly believe that this tragedy is a hate crime and would like NYPD, the Hate Crime Unit and the DOJ to treat it just as so.”
The imam was a native of Bangladesh; his killing has roiled the New York Bangladeshi community. The homicide investigaiton has been followed closely by media in Bangladesh. Bishop Gervas Rozario of Rajshahi, Bangladesh, president of the Episcopal Commission for Justice and Peace, strongly condemned the murders of the two Bangladeshi Muslims in New York: "We are very shocked and sorry for the incident, which we condemn in the strongest terms,” he said. “We condemn in the same way all those who spread hatred and discrimination against other religions. They must be controlled by authorities." The bishop speculated that the U.S. murders could have been caused by "racial hatred.”
According to the criminal charges, Imam Akonjee, 55, and Mr. Uddin, 64, were walking home from the Al-Furqan Jame Masjid mosque on Glenmore Avenue in Ozone Park just before 2 p.m. on Aug. 13, when Morel came up behind the two men at the intersection of 79th Street and Liberty Avenue and fired multiple rounds, including a gunshot wound to the head of both victims. The two men were transported to a local Queens hospital where they were pronounced dead.
The Associated Press reports that the killings have stoked fear and anger in the largely Bangladeshi Muslim community in Queens and Brooklyn, where residents have described harassment in recent months by people who shouted anti-Muslim epithets. Mohammed Nuruzzaman, 31, told the AP the community was anxious to know more about why the men were targeted. "Why he did it—that's the very important thing. What is the motive?" he said. "Did he really do it or is somebody behind it? That's the kind of thing we want to know."
Police said officers searching the Brooklyn home where Morel was arrested late Sunday found the suspected murder weapon—as well as clothes they believe he was wearing at the time of the shooting—behind a section of the wall that had been cut out and reinstalled with screws. Amado Batista, a maintenance worker at Morel's building, told the AP that Morel worked night shifts and had lived in the apartment for eight months. Batista said Morel kept to himself.
Police believe Morel was waiting on the block near the mosque for several minutes on Saturday before he shot each victim in the back of the head then fled in a black GMC Trailblazer. They later learned that a car matching that description struck a bicyclist nearby only 10 minutes after shooting. After finding vehicle parked on the street, police waited for Morel to return. He was captured after getting into the car and ramming a police car while trying to flee. The Majlis Ash-Shura has begun fundraising to benefit the families of the victims at https://www.gofundme.com/ImamsMaulama-Thara with an initial pledge of $10,000.
Includes reporting from the Associated Press.