New York police question man in killing of Muslim imam

Members of the New York City Police Department establish a crime scene at the spot where Imam Alala Uddin Akongi was killed in the Queens borough of New York City, August 13, 2016. REUTERS

New York City police said on Monday 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 Centre (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 Maulama 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 p.m. (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 neighbourhood, is home to a growing number of Muslims of Bangladeshi descents.

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 neighbourhood.