Salman Rushdie attack suspect pleads not guilty to attempted murder and assault


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MAYVILLE, NY, Aug 18 (Reuters) – The man accused of stabbing novelist Salman Rushdie last week in western New York pleaded not guilty to attempted second degree murder and assault on Thursday and has been held without bail.

Hadi Matar, 24, is accused of injuring Rushdie, 75, on Friday just before the author of ‘The Satanic Verses’ gave a talk onstage at an educational retreat near Lake Erie. Rushdie was hospitalized with serious injuries in what writers and politicians around the world have called an assault on free speech.

Matar was arraigned at the Chautauqua County Courthouse on an indictment issued earlier today by a grand jury that charged him with one count of attempted second-degree murder, punishable by a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison, and one count of second-degree assault.

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He has been in jail since his arrest and was wearing a gray striped jumpsuit, a white COVID-19 face mask and his hands were chained.

Judge David Foley ordered Matar to have no contact with Rushdie and agreed to a request from his defense attorney to issue a temporary gag order barring the parties from discussing the case in the media. He said he would consider the defense’s request to release Matar on bail.

Matar will return for another hearing next month.

The attack came 33 years after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then Iran’s supreme leader, issued a fatwa, or religious edict, calling on Muslims to assassinate Rushdie a few months after “The Satanic Verses” was published. Some Muslims have seen passages about the Prophet Muhammad as blasphemous.

Rushdie, who was born in India to a Kashmiri Muslim family, lived with a bounty on his head and spent nine years in hiding under the protection of British police.

In 1998, Iran’s pro-reform government of President Mohammad Khatami distanced itself from the fatwa, saying the threat to Rushdie was over.

But the multi-million dollar bounty has since grown and the fatwa has never been lifted: Khomeini’s successor, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was suspended from Twitter in 2019 for saying the fatwa against Rushdie was “irrevocable”.

In an interview published by the New York Post on Wednesday, Matar said he respected Khomeini but did not say whether he was inspired by the fatwa. He said he had “read a few pages” of “The Satanic Verses” and watched YouTube videos by the author.

“I don’t like him very much,” Matar said of Rushdie, as reported by the Post. “He is someone who attacked Islam, he attacked their beliefs, the belief systems.”

Iran’s Foreign Ministry said Monday that Tehran should not be accused of involvement in the attack. Matar would have acted alone, according to the police.

Matar is a Shia Muslim born in California into a Lebanese family.

Prosecutors say he traveled to the Chautauqua Institution, a retreat about 12 miles from Lake Erie, where he purchased a conference pass from Rushdie.

Witnesses said there were no obvious security checks at the scene and that Matar did not speak when he attacked the author. He was arrested at the scene by a New York State Police trooper after being tackled to the ground by members of the public.

Rushdie suffered serious injuries in the attack, including nerve damage to his arm, liver damage and the probable loss of an eye, his agent said. But his condition has improved since the weekend and he was taken off a ventilator.

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Reporting by Tyler Clifford in Mayville, NY; additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Editing by Frank McGurty, Bernadette Baum, Deepa Babington and Daniel Wallis

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