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Motive Unclear In Killing Of Imam And Aide In New York

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In New York City, the Muslim community is worried. People want answers about the fatal shooting of a local imam and his assistant. A suspect has been arrested and charged, but as NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports, police have not announced a motive.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: It's been almost a week of mourning for the families of Imam Maulama Akonjee and his associate Thara Uddin, including Uddin's sister-in-law Afia.

AFIA UDDIN: Our family is still deeply saddened, and we hope that the authorities are able to bring the murderer to justice.

WANG: The Imam's son-in-law Momin Ahmed says they still want to know the motive.

MOMIN AHMED: They caught him. We're kind of happy a little bit, but we want to know what's the main reason for killing the two person.

WANG: Both the imam and his assistant were shot in the backs of their heads as they left their mosque in Queens on Saturday. Oscar Morel, a 36-year-old man from Brooklyn, has been charged with five criminal counts, including first degree murder. But local Muslim leaders say they want prosecutors to charge these deaths as a hate crime. Here's Debbie Almontaser of the Muslim Community Network.

DEBBIE ALMONTASER: They are by product of a growing anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment fueled largely by the bigoted rhetoric and fear mongering emanating from the current presidential election campaigns.

WANG: If convicted, Morel faces up to life in prison without parole. A hate crime charge would not make his sentence any harsher, says former Manhattan prosecutor Mark Bederow.

MARK BEDEROW: There's nothing to add to the sentence. It just doesn't make sense given the strong case for first degree murder that they appear to have here.

WANG: Bederow says it's hard to prove a person's motive for a hate crime and says adding one could complicate the prosecutor's trial strategy. Michael Fanning once served as a detective sergeant on the NYPD's Hate Crimes Task Force. He says there can be consequences for not charging a hate crime when a specific community feels like it's being attacked on purpose.

MICHAEL FANNING: And that's very dangerous because it starts to eat away at the fabric of society, and we all need to be able to feel safe.

WANG: That's a concern now for many in New York's Muslim community who are calling for more surveillance cameras, including the slain Imam's son-in-law Momin Ahmed.

AHMED: They need to put every corner surveillance cameras and so that way, these kids can be saved. The elders can be saved - anybody walk by, no matter what culture they are.

WANG: But some Muslim leaders like Debbie Almontaser are wary of calling for more surveillance.

ALMONTASER: It's coming from a place of fear. And once we allay that fear, they will understand that we don't need surveillance cameras as we've had in the past.

WANG: Almontaser says she is grateful for more police patrols around mosques but says the long-term solution may lie in self-protection. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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