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Court rules Bronx Synagogue attack is hate crime

ALBANY - A person can be guilty of a hate crime even if the violence is directed at a building rather than a person, the state's top court ruled yesterday.

The Court of Appeals unanimously said the stricter penalties imposed for such crimes apply to a man convicted of trying to bomb a Bronx synagogue in 2000.

"It is self-evident that, although the target of the defendant's criminal conduct was a building, the true victims were the individuals of Jewish faith who were members of the synagogue," Judge Victoria Graffeo wrote. She upheld rulings by the trial court and a midlevel court on a state statute enacted in 2000. "The evidence in this case proved that defendant committed an attempted arson of the synagogue because of his anger toward a particular religious group," Graffeo wrote.

Mazin Assi, 30, is serving 5 to 15 years in prison.

Jan Hoth, Assi's lawyer, said her client has been denied parole twice, will probably serve the full term despite having no prior criminal record and would be free already if simply convicted of attempted arson. He had grown up in Palestine and was working at a deli in New York at the time, she said.

David Raim, a lawyer representing the Anti-Defamation League, which filed a brief in the case, said there are still "a significant number" of vandalism and property crimes against houses of worship in the U.S. The league drafted model hate crime laws 27 years ago, and New York is one of the 45 states that have enacted them, he said.

The FBI reported more than 9,000 hate crime offenses in 2008, one-third against property. About half were racially motivated and almost 20 percent from religious bias.

Prosecutors said Assi and three others tried to make firebombs out of vodka bottles and threw them through the glass door on the Congregation Adath Israel synagogue on the eve of Yom Kippur. The homemade bombs did not ignite.

Assi told police he was angry that a Palestinian child was shot by the Israeli Army and wanted to make a statement that would stop Middle East violence. He was angry that wealthy Jews in Riverdale send money to Israel that's used to buy guns and kill people, he said.

A co-defendant was tried separately and convicted of criminal mischief but no hate crime, Hoth said. A juvenile in the case received probation in family court, and a fourth person refused to speak to police and was never tried, she said.

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