New York, Mar 24 (PTI) A 37-year-old city resident has been convicted of killing a Bangladeshi-American Muslim cleric and his associate in New York in 2016, a crime that was seen as symptomatic of rising Islamophobic and xenophobic rhetoric in the US.

“Oscar Morel of Brooklyn was convicted at trial of first-degree murder and other charges for the broad daylight execution of Imam Maulana Akonjee, 55, and his associate and friend Thara Uddin, 64. The two men were gunned down as they walked home following prayers at the Al-furqan Jame Masjid Mosque in Queens in August 2016,” Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said in a statement.

Describing the killings as a “senseless act of gun violence” carried out in the middle of the afternoon in a close-knit neighborhood filled with families, Brown said, “Morel’s actions caused immeasurable grief not only to the victims’ families, but the slaying struck at the heart of the Muslim community of Queens.” He expressed hope that the verdict would bring some closure to the family and many friends of the two men killed.

Morel was convicted yesterday following a nearly three-week-long trial before Queens Supreme Court Justice Gregory Lasak. Jurors deliberated for about a day and found Morel guilty of one count of first-degree murder, two counts of second-degree murder and one count of second-degree criminal possession of a weapon. Morel will be sentenced next month and faces life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-NY), the state’s leading Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, welcomed Morel’s conviction, saying the brutal crime had corresponded with a nationwide surge in anti-Muslim hate crimes, triggered massive demonstrations in the city and gained worldwide media attention.

CAIR-New York, which serves as civil counsel for the Akonjee and Uddin families, exposed gratitude that Morel has been brought to justice for the horrific crime.

“Maulana and Thara came to this country in search of a better life, instead they found Morel’s hatred. Nothing can ever replace what Morel took from us, but this verdict helps show that this city will never accept this sort of heartbreaking violence.” CAIR-New York Executive Director Afaf Nasher said many lives had been seriously impacted with the grief and continuing consequences of losing their loved ones.

According to trial testimony, Akonjee and Thara were returning home from prayers at their local mosque in the afternoon of August 13, 2016 when Morel approached them from the rear, pointing a .38 caliber revolver at their heads. Morel fired several shots and fled the scene. The Imam was hit four times in the head and body. Uddin was shot once in the head. Both men were rushed to a nearby hospital, where they died.

Video surveillance from near the shooting scene showed the defendant exit a black SUV and walk and run toward the two victims off-camera and moments later Morel was observed on the same video camera running back to his vehicle and leaving the area.

The firearm was later recovered from Morel’s home. Forensic analysis confirmed that the bullets that killed the Imam and Uddin were fired from the revolver that was hidden behind a kitchen wall in the defendant’s Brooklyn apartment.

This is published unedited from the PTI feed.