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Updated Jun 3, 2024, 12:24pm EDT
security

Salman Rushdie’s alleged assailant seeks plea deal with US

Salman Rushdie poses during a photocall ahead of the presentation of his book "Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder" at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, Germany, May 16, 2024
Fabrizio Bensch/REUTERS
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The Scoop

Hadi Matar, the man accused of nearly fatally stabbing British-American writer Salman Rushdie, is negotiating a plea agreement with both US state and federal prosecutors that could shed light on whether a foreign government or terrorist organization was involved in the attack, officials involved in the case told Semafor.

Matar is scheduled to go on trial for attempted murder this September in a western New York courthouse not far from the Chautauqua Institution where Rushdie was assaulted while giving a speech in August 2022 at a summer cultural festival. But federal prosecutors from the US Attorney’s Office are separately investigating whether Matar, 26, was part of a broader conspiracy to assassinate the writer, according to lawyers and US officials involved in the case. The revolutionary founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei, issued a fatwa, or religious decree, in 1989, calling for Rushdie’s death on the grounds that his novel, The Satanic Verses, was blasphemous against Islam.

The Department of Justice has yet to file a separate terrorism charge against Matar. But his legal team is anticipating one and has been ramping up efforts in recent months to reach a comprehensive settlement with both state and federal prosecutors in a bid to reduce his overall prison sentence, the officials said. Such an agreement could provide answers to whether an outside actor was involved in the attack.

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“There have been some efforts to try to resolve the matter that’s been promoted by the defense. There is some potential for that, we’ll see,” Chautauqua County District Attorney Jason Schmidt, who’s prosecuting the murder case, told Semafor. “But from my standpoint, it has always been…you really want to convict one way or the other on the top charge. We’re going to advocate for the maximum sentence available under our laws.”

Matar’s attorney, Nathaniel Barone, signaled his client’s desire to reach a comprehensive settlement during a May 10 legal proceeding at the Chautauqua County courthouse. “They’re looking at it from a whole different perspective,” Barone said of the federal government’s investigation into the attack on Rushdie, and why the public defender is interested in a settlement. “Any statute you’re dealing with federally could be terrorist-based, and the exposure is much more significant for my client than the state charges.”

Schmidt said he’s conferring with Rushdie about whether the Booker Prize winner would accept a plea deal with Matar. But the writer hasn’t given a firm answer yet. The DA said he’s currently planning to seek the maximum sentence for Matar at trial, which would likely range between 25 to 32 years. But a complex negotiation would likely be needed with federal prosecutors to calculate how any terrorism-related charge would weigh on Matar’s sentencing.

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“I’m not sure where he’s at. I think, you know, it’s obviously very emotional,” Schmidt said of Rushdie. “He’s sort of considering his options.” A representative for Rushdie didn’t respond to Semafor’s request for comment.

Schmidt said it’s unclear what Matar could provide federal prosecutors as part of an agreement. He pleaded innocent in 2022 to the charge of attempted murder in the second degree. Neither the DoJ or FBI have commented on the result of the federal investigation or if they’ve found ties between the attack on Rushdie and foreign actors.


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Jay’s view

The impending trial of Matar has generated only sporadic media attention, surprising given Rushdie’s public profile and the geopolitical implications of the attack. But if Matar reaches plea agreements with state and federal prosecutors, particularly on terrorism-related charges, this could change significantly.

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The DA’s primary piece of evidence, Schmidt says, is video footage from the Chautauqua Institution that shows Matar rushing the stage on August 12, 2022 and stabbing Rushdie ten times in his face, hand and upper body. Matar also allegedly attacked the event’s moderator, Henry Reese. But the issue federal investigators are trying to establish is whether Matar acted as a lone wolf or received orders or material support from others — potentially Iran or Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group that Tehran arms and finances.

Court records and press reports portray Matar as a disgruntled youth who hated school, worked at a discount store, and failed in his efforts at becoming a professional boxer. His Lebanese-American father left for Lebanon when Matar was young. People who met Matar described him as a recluse who could simply have taken inspiration from the teachings of Khomenei and his fatwa against Rushdie.

But the picture Matar’s mother painted of her son reads like the textbook case of radicalization. Silvana Fardos told the New York Times that Matar traveled to Lebanon in 2018 — presumably to stay with his father in the southern town of Yaroun — and came back a totally changed person, deeply religious in the Shiite Muslim faith and a supporter of Iran’s Islamic revolution. “I have nothing to say to him,” Fardos told the paper.

Federal authorities are investigating whether Matar received military training by Hezbollah — or received instructions pertaining to Rushdie — during his visits to Yaroun, which sits astride Lebanon’s border with Israel, according to US and Arab officials. Any deal Matar’s lawyers cut with the US Attorney’s Office would almost certainly need to address any interactions he had with Hezbollah in the years leading up to the attack. Police found a fake driver’s license on Matar after his arrest that bore the name of Hezbollah’s top military commander, Imad Mugniyah, who was assassinated in 2008, allegedly by the CIA.

Iran’s possible role in the 2022 attack is also something federal investigators are probing, according to these officials. Tehran denied any involvement in the weeks after the attack, even though Iranian religious leaders praised Matar for seeking to carry out the fatwa. An Islamic organization — the Foundation to Implement Imam Khomeini’s Fatwas — offered him 1,000 square meters of agricultural land as a reward.

Even if Tehran played no operational role in the attack on Rushdie, federal prosecutors could argue Iranian officials and foundations were guilty of incitement. The State Department sanctioned Iran’s 15 Khordad Foundation in October 2022 for issuing bounties on Rushdie, including one for $3.3 million in 2012.

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The View From Salman Rushdie

Rushdie published in April a 214-page account of the attack, called Knife: Mediations After an Attempted Murder. In the memoir, the writer describes his belief at the time that Khomenei’s fatwa was a relic of the past. Rushdie had resumed leading a largely normal life in New York after decades of hiding in the UK, he says. And very little security accompanied his appearance at the Chautauqua Institution amphitheater on the morning of August 12, 2022.

Rushdie recounts seeing a masked man charging the stage at Chautauqua just as a discussion – ironically, on the need to provide international artists with safe spaces – commences. “So my first thought when I saw this murderous shape rushing towards me was: ‘So it’s you. Here you are,’” Rushdie writes.

The author devotes a chapter to imagining a one-on-one discussion with Matar, whom he refers to simply as “A.” Rushdie pushes his would-be assassin during a mock interview on his motivations for attempting murder. But he never outright asks A. if he was trained by foreign terrorists or had received instructions from Tehran. “I’m trying to understand you,” Rushdie says to the imagined A. “Why were you so ready to ruin your life? Your life. Not mine.”

Rushdie also describes difficult discussions with his legal team about the possibility Matar could reach this plea agreement with state and federal prosecutors. Rushdie contemplates the possibility that Matar could be freed while the 76-year-old writer is still alive. “This guy is very young,” he concludes. “I don’t want him walking the streets when he’s forty-something, looking for me.”


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Notable

  • Semafor broke in March how the FBI is hunting for a senior Iranian intelligence operative who the US believes is plotting to assassinate current and former American officials.
  • A journalist at an anti-Iranian regime television channel was stabbed three times in London in April. British security forces had warned the channel, Iran International, that Tehran was targeting its staff.
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