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Suspect in imam case pleads not guilty; lawyer hints at mosque feud

Oscar Morel is arraigned at Queens Criminal Court

Oscar Morel is arraigned at Queens Criminal Court on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016. Morel was charged with oone count of first-degree murder, two counts of second-degree murder and two counts of second-degree criminal possession of a weapon in the murders of Imam Maulana Akonjee and Thara Uddin on Aug. 13. Credit: Pool / Dennis A. Clark

A Queens imam and his aide may have been shot dead last month because of internal strife at their Ozone Park mosque, the attorney representing their accused killer said outside court Thursday.

Lawyer Michael Schwed, who represents Oscar Morel, noted the theory about a mosque feud as a motive for the killings as he spoke with reporters Thursday outside Queens State Supreme Court following his client’s arraignment on a murder indictment.

Morel, 35, of Brooklyn, faces charges of first- and second-degree murder, as well as criminal weapons possession stemming from the Aug. 13 execution-style slayings of Imam Maulana Akonjee, 55, and his associate Thara Uddin, 64, while both men walked wearing Muslim garb on 79th Street at Liberty Avenue.

While police have yet to cite a motive for the killings, Schwed said he has been told by his sources about problems in the Al-Furquan Jame Masjid mosque.

“There is a possible motive that I have become aware of, that has nothing to do with religion or hate crimes and has to do somewhat with the mosque itself, not particularly liking the imam,” the lawyer said. “I don’t know if it is true, that is why I am getting an investigator to check it out.”

Told of Schwed’s remarks, members of the mosque who had also been in court Thursday derided the notion of any internal troubles. They said the killings were hate crimes, although police haven’t found evidence of that.

“He had no enemies,” Mostafa Eddin said of Akonjee. “He talked just for religion, no politics at all.”

Schwed also said Morel told him police fired at him when they arrested him Aug. 15, and the attorney suggested officers might have planted a gun found in the defendant’s apartment as a way of diverting attention from their alleged misconduct. Police said a .38-caliber revolver was hidden in the wall of Morel’s apartment.

But NYPD police spokesman Stephen Davis scoffed when told of the allegation of a planted firearm, saying there were no shots fired when Morel was confronted by officers outside his Brooklyn apartment as he approached his car.

During a brief court appearance before Judge Gregory Lasak, Morel through his attorney entered a not-guilty plea to the indictment charges. Schwed asked Lasak to consider granting bail to Morel, primarily because none of the witnesses expected to be called were able to positively identify him as the shooter. But Lasak denied the request and said he expected to make a decision on any pretrial motions by Oct. 18.

Outside court, Schwed said because of problems with the lineup identification, Morel felt more confident he could prove he wasn’t the shooter. If convicted on the most serious charge of first-degree murder, Morel faces a maximum sentence of life in prison without parole.

Reminded that prosecutors said in court that two bullets recovered from Akonjee’s body were matched to the gun found in Morel’s apartment, Schwed said he had not seen the police reports and was skeptical.

“I don’t believe anything until I see it,” the lawyer said.

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