NEW YORK – Two men attacked a Muslim religious leader in a hate-fueled assault in a subway station, with one hurling slurs along with a fist, prosecutors and Muslim advocates said Thursday.
But defense lawyers said the incident was a fight spurred by an accidental bump, not bias.
Eddie Crespo, an officer with a transportation police force, and friend Albert Melendez were charged Thursday with robbery and assault, both as hate crimes.
The allegations rapidly sounded alarms from Muslim advocates, who added the incident to what they say is a spike in anti-Muslim violence this year. But lawyers for the men said authorities had miscast a straightforward dispute as a hate crime.
"This was certainly not a racially motivated attack. Judge, these are trumped-up charges," Melendez's lawyer, Angel Soto, said at his client's arraignment.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations said the victim was an imam but declined to identify him.
Melendez and Crespo — the boyfriend Melendez's sister, according to Crespo's lawyer — crossed paths with the imam on a subway train early Wednesday, according to a court complaint.
According to the court complaint, Melendez, 30, declared "I don't like Muslims," and used an insulting term for Muslims or Arabs, before trying to kick the imam and grabbing him as he got off the train at a lower Manhattan station. CAIR said one of the attackers also smeared all Muslims as terrorists.
Amid a scuffle, Crespo, 28, grabbed the imam to help Melendez, according to the court complaint. Ultimately, Melendez punched the imam in the face and threw his kufi — a prayer cap — onto the subway tracks, the complaint said.
"The imam's prayer cap being thrown on the subway tracks, coupled with the religious and racial slurs, indicates that the motivation behind the violent attack was hatred towards the entire Muslim community," said Aliya Latif, the civil rights director for CAIR's New York chapter.
Defense lawyers said the fight began after Melendez and the imam bumped into each other and the imam scornfully refused to shake his hand.
Crespo tried to break up the scuffle and tend to the injured man afterward, said Crespo's lawyer, Arnold Keith. He said Crespo didn't even see the man's cap.
"This is a nightmare for him," Keith said in an interview.
Crespo, a Metropolitan Transportation Authority bridge and tunnel officer for five years, has been suspended without pay, the agency said.
Melendez's mother is a probation officer, and his father also works in government, his lawyer said.
Crespo was being held on $7,500 bail, and Melendez on $25,000.
CAIR hasn't compiled an exact tally of anti-Muslim incidents nationwide this year, "but anecdotally, we've seen a real uptick," particularly since debate flared this summer over plans for a mosque and Islamic center two blocks from ground zero, said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the group's national office.
Incidents include the slashing of a Muslim cab driver in August by an attacker authorities say was spurred by anti-Muslim sentiment; a fire last month at an Oregon Islamic center that was an occasional place of worship for a Somali-born teen accused of plotting a terror attack in Portland; and the arrest of a woman accused of yelling epithets and assaulting a Muslim woman at a Seattle-area gas station.