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Author Salman Rushdie on ventilator, man charged after stabbing attack on lecture stage

Salman Rushdie, whose novel The Satanic Verses drew death threats from Iran's leader, was stabbed in the neck and abdomen Friday as the author was about to give a lecture in western New York. A New Jersey man has been charged with attempted murder and assault, it was announced Saturday.

24-year-old suspect pleads not guilty to attempted murder, assault charges

Author Salman Rushdie stabbed onstage in New York

2 months ago
Duration 2:07
Salman Rushdie, author of the controversial novel The Satanic Verses, was attacked by a man on a lecture stage in New York State. Rushdie was rushed to hospital to treat his stab wounds, and the attacker was arrested.

A man has been charged after Salman Rushdie, whose novel The Satanic Verses drew death threats from Iran's leader in the 1980s, was stabbed in the neck and abdomen Friday as the author was about to give a lecture in western New York.

Rushdie, 75, remained in hospital on Saturday, on a ventilator and unable to speak. He suffered a damaged liver, severed nerves in an arm, and was likely to lose an eye, his agent Andrew Wylie said Friday evening.

Hadi Matar, 24, of Fairview, N.J., was arrested at the scene, and prosecutors said Saturday he has been charged with attempted murder and assault.

Later on Saturday, a lawyer for the accused entered a not guilty plea on his behalf during an arraignment hearing. Matar appeared in court wearing a black-and-white jumpsuit and a white face mask, and his hands were cuffed in front of him.

Matar was born in the United States to Lebanese parents who emigrated from Yaroun, in southern Lebanon, the mayor of the Lebanese village, Ali Tehfe, told The Associated Press.

Hadi Matar, 24, arrives for an arraignment in the Chautauqua County Courthouse in Mayville, N.Y., on Saturday. (Gene J. Puskar/The Associated Press)

Maj. Eugene Staniszewski of state police said the motive for the stabbing was unclear.

An Associated Press reporter witnessed a man confront Rushdie as the author was being introduced onstage at the Chautauqua Institution, and punch or stab him 10 to 15 times. The author was pushed or fell to the floor, and the man was arrested.

Dr. Martin Haskell, a physician who was among those who rushed to help, described Rushdie's wounds as "serious but recoverable."

Event moderator Henry Reese, 73, a co-founder of an organization that offers residencies to writers facing persecution, was also attacked. Reese suffered a facial injury and was treated and released from a hospital, police said. He and Rushdie were due to discuss the United States as a refuge for writers and other artists in exile.

Lack of security questioned

A state trooper and a county sheriff's deputy were assigned to Rushdie's lecture, and state police said the trooper made the arrest.

But after the attack, some longtime visitors to the centre questioned why there wasn't tighter security, given the decades of threats against Rushdie and a bounty on his head offering more than $3 million US to anyone who kills him.

After the attack, spectators were ushered out of the outdoor amphitheatre. Rabbi Charles Savenor was among the roughly 2,500 people in attendance. 

WATCH | Witnesses describe Salman Rushdie attack: 

Salman Rushdie attack 'got so real, so fast,' witness says

2 months ago
Duration 1:03
Witnesses to the attack on Salman Rushdie Friday in western New York recount how a man approached the stage at the Chautauqua Institution where the author was about to give a lecture, attacked him and was later pinned down by people from the audience.

"This guy ran on to the platform and started pounding on Mr. Rushdie. At first you're like, 'What's going on?' And then it became abundantly clear in a few seconds that he was being beaten."

Savenor said the attack lasted about 20 seconds. 

Another spectator, Kathleen James, said the attacker was dressed in black and wore a black mask.

WATCH | New York Gov. Kathy Hochul gives update on Rushdie's status: 

New York governor addresses Rushdie attack

2 months ago
Duration 1:29
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul provides a brief update on Salman Rushdie's status after the novelist was attacked on stage prior to giving a speech.

"We thought perhaps it was part of a stunt to show that there's still a lot of controversy around this author," she said, noting it soon became evident that it was no stunt. 

Matar, like other visitors, had obtained a pass to enter the institution's 303-hectare grounds, said the president of the organization, Michael Hill.

The suspect's lawyer, public defender Nathaniel Barone, said he was still gathering information and declined to comment. Matar's home was blocked off by authorities.

WATCH | Man charged in Rushdie attack: 

Man charged with attempted murder, assault in Salman Rushdie stabbing

2 months ago
Duration 8:06
Hadi Matar, 24, of Fairview, N.J., was arrested at New York lecture hall scene, is charged with attempted murder and assault as Rushdie in hospital on ventilator.

Rushdie has been a prominent spokesperson for free expression and liberal causes, and the literary world recoiled at what novelist and Rushdie friend Ian McEwan described as "an assault on freedom of thought and speech."

"Salman has been an inspirational defender of persecuted writers and journalists across the world," McEwan said in a statement. "He is a fiery and generous spirit, a man of immense talent and courage and he will not be deterred."

PEN America's chief executive officer, Suzanne Nossel, said the organization didn't know of any comparable act of violence against a literary writer in the U.S. Rushdie was once president of the group, which advocates for writers and free expression.

Death threats followed novel 

Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, first published in 1988, was viewed as blasphemous by many Muslims. Often-violent protests against him erupted around the world, including a riot that killed 12 people in Mumbai.

The novel was banned in Iran, where the late leader Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, or edict, calling for Rushdie's death in 1989. Khomeini died that same year.

Soon after, a wave of violence followed. In 1989, four bombs were placed outside Penguin bookshops, one of which exploded in Northern England — Penguin is the British publisher of The Satanic Verses.

A patient on a stretcher is taken to a helicopter.
In this still image from video, author Salman Rushdie is taken on a stretcher to a helicopter for transport to a hospital after he was attacked during a lecture at the Chautauqua Institution in Chautauqua, N.Y., on Friday. (The Associated Press)

In 1991, the Italian translator of The Satanic Verses, Ettore Capriolo, was beaten and suffered knife wounds at the hands of a man who said he was Iranian. Less than two weeks later, Hitoshi Igarashi — who translated the book into Japanese — was stabbed to death by an attacker in Tokyo.

Iran's current leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has never withdrawn the fatwa, though in recent years, Iran hasn't focused on the writer.

Iran's mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday's attack, which led a night news bulletin on Iranian state television.

Rushdie committed to freedom of expression

The death threats and bounty led Rushdie to go into hiding under a British government protection program, including a round-the-clock armed guard.

Rushdie emerged after nine years of seclusion and cautiously resumed more public appearances, maintaining his outspoken criticism of religious extremism overall.

Randy Boyagoda, a novelist and professor of English at the University of Toronto who says he has interviewed Rushdie numerous times, said Rushdie's commitment to freedom of expression is what guides his career.

Blood stains mark a screen as author Salman Rushdie, behind the screen, is tended to after he was attacked during a lecture on Friday at the Chautauqua Institution in New York state. (Joshua Goodman/The Associated Press)

He said while the public focus on Satanic Verses and the violence and controversy that surrounds it is likely a "source of frustration" for Rushdie, he continues to speak publicly about the book, and the danger artists can face for speaking out, to champion the power of the written word. 

"Here is someone who was not romantic about it — like, frankly, many of us are — but in fact, put his own life on the line to continue with his work," Boyagoda said.

Rushdie himself has said he is proud of his fight for freedom of expression, saying at a 2012 talk in New York that terrorism is really the art of fear.

"The only way you can defeat it is by deciding not to be afraid."

Fatwa still stands

Iran's government has long since distanced itself from Khomeini's decree, but anti-Rushdie sentiment has lingered.

The Index on Censorship, an organization promoting free expression, said money was raised to boost the reward for his killing as recently as 2016, underscoring the fact the fatwa for his death still stands.

An Associated Press journalist who went to the Tehran office of the 15 Khordad Foundation, which put up the millions for the bounty on Rushdie, found it closed Friday night on the Iranian weekend. No one answered calls to its listed telephone number.

In 2012, Rushdie published a memoir about life under the fatwa, titled Joseph Anton, the pseudonym he used while in hiding.

WATCH | In 2012, Rushdie spoke to CBC about his life in hiding: 

Rushdie's life in hiding

10 years ago
Duration 3:24
Acclaimed author revisits his decade in hiding, while under threat of death by religious extremists, in his new memoir Joseph Anton.

Though the author rose to prominence with his Booker Prize-winning 1981 novel Midnight's Children, his name became known around the world after The Satanic Verses.

Widely regarded as one of Britain's finest living writers, Rushdie was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2008, and earlier this year was made a member of the Order of the Companions of Honour, a royal accolade for people who have made a major contribution to the arts, science or public life.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted he was "appalled" that Rushdie was stabbed "while exercising a right we should never cease to defend."

A day after the attack, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted that what happened to Rushdie was a "strike" on freedom of expression.

The Chautauqua Institution, about 90 kilometres southwest of Buffalo in a rural corner of New York, has served for more than a century as a place for reflection and spiritual guidance. Visitors don't pass through metal detectors or undergo bag checks. 

The Chautauqua centre is known for its summertime lecture series, where Rushdie has spoken before. 

At an evening vigil, a few hundred residents and visitors gathered for prayer, music and a long moment of silence.

"Hate can't win," one man shouted.

With files from the CBC's Thomas Daigle and CBC News

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