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11 Feb 2015 17:59
Craig Stephen Hicks is being held on three counts of first-degree murder. (Reuters, Durham County Office of the Sheriff)
A North Carolina man espousing anti-religious views has been charged with the murders of three Muslim students, including a husband and wife, who were shot to death in the university town of Chapel Hill, police said on Wednesday.
Police said they were looking into the possibility of a hate crime, but that the incident appeared to be triggered by a dispute between neighbours over parking.
Police were holding the shooter, identified as 46-year-old Craig Stephen Hicks, without bond in the Durham County Jail on three counts of first-degree murder.
The victims, who were pronounced dead on the scene, have been identified as Chapel Hill residents Deah Shaddy Barakat (23) and his wife Yusor Mohammad (21), and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha (19) from Raleigh.
Hicks turned himself in after the shooting on Tuesday in Chapel Hill, just outside the campus of the University of North Carolina.
“Our preliminary investigation indicates that the crime was motivated by an ongoing neighbour dispute over parking,” said Chapel Hill police, adding that Hicks was co-operating with investigators.
“Our investigators are exploring what could have motivated Mr Hicks to commit such a senseless and tragic act. We understand the concerns about the possibility that this was hate-motivated and we will exhaust every lead to determine if that is the case,” said Police chief Chris Blue.
A Facebook page believed to belong to Hicks shows dozens of anti-religious posts, including one calling himself an “anti-theist”, saying he has a “conscientious objection to religion”, and other memes denouncing Christianity, Mormonism and Islam.
His page also shows a photo of a loaded revolver, alongside a video of a puppy and a promotional clip for Air New Zealand.
One post reads: “I’m not an atheist because I’m ignorant of the reality of religious scripture.
“Given the enormous harm that your religion has done in this world, I’d say that I have not only a right, but a duty, to insult it,” he posted under the religious beliefs tab.
Reaction to the shooting lit up Twitter, with one of the top trending hashtags being #MuslimLivesMatter – a parallel to the “Black Lives Matter” movement sparked by police killings of African Americans in recent months.
Photos of the three victims circulated on social media, including recent wedding pictures of Barakat and his wife.
Reports said Barakat was a second-year student in dentistry at the university, while Mohammad was planning to begin her dental studies in autumn.
Abu-Salha was a student at North Carolina State University, according to university newspaper the Daily Tar Heel.
A Facebook community - Our Three Winners – has been set up for posts about the three students.
“Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha and Razan Abu-Salha have returned to their Lord,” the site’s creators state. “They have set an example in life and in death.”
The site features a photo of the three smiling at what appears to be a graduation ceremony. The women wear Muslim head scarfs, one of them also in a blue graduation cap.
Barakat’s brother Farris mourned the deaths, writing “it doesn’t make sense” on his Facebook page.
“Please pray for them, their friends and the family. I haven’t even begun to fully comprehend what has happened. But I know for sure those three together have done so much we are all proud of,” he wrote. - AFP
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