New York police arrest suspect in street slaying of Muslim cleric, as thousands mourn

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 August, 2016, 9:39am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 August, 2016, 9:39am

New York police said Monday they are fairly certain they have arrested a man who killed a New York imam and his friend this week, as thousands gathered for the cleric’s funeral.

The NYPD’s chief of detectives told reporters the 36-year-old suspect is being held on charges he struck a bicyclist 10 minutes after the shooting.

Robert Boyce did not release the man’s name. He has not been charged in the double slaying.

But Boyce said surveillance footage showed the man speeding away from the scene of the Saturday shooting near a Queens mosque in a black GMC Trailblazer.

He said that 10 minutes later, that car also struck a bicyclist 5km away in Brooklyn. Detectives arrested the man Sunday night in the hit-and-run accident.

Police search for suspect in brazen daylight killing of imam and friend on New York street

Authorities still don’t know what prompted the daytime shooting of Imam Maulama Alauddin Akonjee and Thara Uddin.

But many in the victims’ Bangladeshi community believe it was a hate crime.

Traditional Islamic services for Akonjee, 55, and Uddin, 64, drew a large crowd to a parking area near where the men were killed after Saturday prayers at the Al-Furqan Jame Mosque in the Ozone Park section of Queens.

Speaker after speaker at the funeral implored law enforcement to investigate the murders as a hate crime and step up efforts to protect sections of the city like Ozone Park where many Muslims live and work.

“We want justice,” Badrul Kahn, founder of the Al-Furqan mosque and its chief adviser, shouted to the crowd in the service’s opening speech. “We want justice,” responded the mourners, most of them men dressed in Islamic garb.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, addressing the funeral, promised that the city would bolster the police presence in the neighborhood even though the motive behind the killings was still unclear.

“We don’t know what happened but we will,” the mayor said. “An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us.”

The man who detectives were questioning on Monday had been detained on unrelated circumstances and has not been charged in the killings, a spokesman for the New York Police Department said. Earlier, NBC News and the New York Daily News said the man was a suspect, citing unnamed law enforcement sources.

Police had released a sketch of a male suspect with dark hair, a beard and glasses. NBC reported the man being questioned matched the description.

Police have said there was no evidence the men were targeted because of their faith but nothing was being ruled out.

Even so, the victims appeared to have been targeted by a gunman who stalked them as they left afternoon prayers at the Al-Furqan Jame Mosque and shot them in the head at close range at about 1.50pm on Saturday, police said after interviewing witnesses and watching surveillance video.

The imam was carrying US$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.

Residents of Ozone Park were rattled by the brazen daylight killings, saying such a crime was rare in their quiet neighborhood.

Felix Lopez, 26, who has lived in Ozone Park for a decade and works at a barber shop, said the Muslims in the neighborhood, many of Bangladeshi heritage, were very friendly, and there is little rancour between racial and ethnic groups in the area.

“People aren’t messing with other people,” Lopez aid. “We’re all pretty shocked this happened.”

Additional reporting by Associated Press