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Authorities Investigate Possible Hate Crime in Murder of NYC Imam


Oscar Morel appears in a Queens courtroom in New York, Aug. 16, 2016.

Oscar Morel appears in a Queens courtroom in New York, Aug. 16, 2016.

Oscar Morel, accused in the execution-style murders of two Muslim men over the weekend, was arraigned Tuesday in the New York City borough of Queens.

Morel, a 35-year-old Hispanic man, was formally charged with one count of first-degree murder, two counts of second-degree murder and two counts of criminal possession of a weapon Tuesday afternoon by Queens District Attorney Richard Brown.

Imam Maulama Akonjee and his associate Thara Uddin were killed Saturday near their mosque in Ozone Park in Queens.

"The defendant is accused of the murder of a highly respected and beloved religious leader and his friend," Brown said in a statement. "Their deaths are a devastating loss to their families and the community that they served as men of peace."

Imam Maulama Akonjee's son Saif Akonjee speaks to media at the Queens Criminal Court before the arraignment of alleged murderer Oscar Morel in Queens, New York, Aug. 16, 2016.

Imam Maulama Akonjee's son Saif Akonjee speaks to media at the Queens Criminal Court before the arraignment of alleged murderer Oscar Morel in Queens, New York, Aug. 16, 2016.

Currently, Morel is being held without bail, as ordered by Queens Criminal Court Judge Karen Gopee. A grand jury hearing is scheduled for August 18.

If convicted, Morel could face life in prison without the possibility of parole. Meanwhile, Brown added, the investigation remains ongoing to determine whether the defendant's actions constitute a hate crime.

Investigation, arrest

Morel was arrested Sunday.

Explaining the speedy investigation, New York Police Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce used surveillance footage to show a black GMC Trailblazer vehicle fleeing the scene of the shooting. Later, he said a vehicle matching that description was involved in a hit-and-run accident with a bicyclist.

WATCH: Surveillance footage shows shooting, hit-and-run

Morel was initially arrested and charged in the hit-and-run incident. Charges were upgraded late Monday.

The motive behind the shooting of the imam and his associate is still unclear, police said.

The New York Daily News reported that Morel had no known links to either Ozone Park, where the shooting took place, or Al-Furqan Jame Mosque, where the slain imam and his associate had prayed immediately before the daytime attack.

Landlord Amado Baptista said Morel lived alone in a basement apartment in Brooklyn but had a girlfriend. Inside Morel's apartment, authorities said they found hidden in a wall a .38-caliber Taurus revolver used in the attack, along with clothes that matched those worn by the suspect in a surveillance video.

Morel had been employed as a porter by The New School, a private university in Manhattan. His only previous record was an arrest for a minor drug offense.

A man cries as community members protest hate crime after the funeral service of Imam Maulama Akonjee and Thara Uddin in the Queens borough of New York City, New York, Aug. 15, 2016.

A man cries as community members protest hate crime after the funeral service of Imam Maulama Akonjee and Thara Uddin in the Queens borough of New York City, New York, Aug. 15, 2016.

Alvin Morel, Oscar Morel's brother, described Oscar as a "decent person," according to published reports. Alvin Morel said his family was raised Catholic and had "no gripes with Muslims."

However, Alvin Morel noted the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as an exception.

"The only time we felt — everybody in New York felt — a hatred was during 9/11. Other than that, we never felt a hatred with nobody," Alvin Morel said.

Baptista, Morel's landlord, told the New York Daily News that he hadn't heard Morel express dislike for Muslims or any faith.

"He never talked about anything like that. I don't understand how he could have done anything like this," he said.

Seeking a motive

While authorities have yet to rule on a motive for the attack, a grieving New York Muslim community says it is convinced the shooting was motivated by hatred, citing recent attacks against the community and a fragile political climate in the U.S.

FILE - Authorities investigate the scene of the execution-style murders of two Muslim men in the New York City borough of Queens, Aug. 13, 2016.

FILE - Authorities investigate the scene of the execution-style murders of two Muslim men in the New York City borough of Queens, Aug. 13, 2016.

FBI statistics, compiled and provided by the Center for the Study of Hate Extremism for the New York Times, point to an increase in suspected anti-Muslim hate crimes across the country in recent years, averaging 12.6 per month.

Following the funerals for Akonjee and Uddin — both Bangladeshi natives — New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio offered his condolences and added protection to the Bangladeshi and New York Muslim community.

"It is a painful time, but it's a time where we will reaffirm that in this city, we believe an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us," de Blasio said. "And we will work together to encourage the kind of harmony, the kind of unity, that New Yorkers believe in."

The best way to fight against divisive voices, he added, is to keep the Muslim community safe.

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