Pittsburgh synagogue shooting suspect charged with 44 counts

Robert Bowers, who has been charged with 44 counts, regularly made anti-Semitic comments on social media.

    Pittsburgh synagogue shooting suspect charged with 44 counts
    A woman prays at a makeshift memorial near the Tree of Life synagogue following Saturday's massacre [Cathal McNaughton/Reuters]

    The suspect in a mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh that killed 11 worshipers has been charged on a total of 44 counts, up from 29 counts previously, according to a federal indictment filed on Wednesday.

    The charges against Robert Bowers, the suspect in what is believed to be the deadliest attack on Jews in the United States in recent history, include religious hate crimes, firearms charges and causing injury to police officers. Bowers is due to appear at a second hearing in federal court in Pittsburgh on Thursday.

    Bowers reportedly made anti-Semitic remarks as he opened fire on worshipers inside the building, killing 11 and wounding several others, including police officers responding at the scene.

    The new charges included 11 counts of obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death and various charges related to his use of a gun in anti-religious violence.

    Prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty. 

    Mugshot of Robert Bowers, alleged synagogue shooter [AFP]

    The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) said the massacre may be the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in US history. 

    It also comes at a time of increasing debate over gun violence in the US, where firearms are linked to more than 30,000 deaths annually.

    Funerals held

    Mourners gathered this week for the funerals of Melvin Wax, 88, who was leading Sabbath services when the attack began, retired real estate agent Irving Younger, 69, and retired university researcher Joyce Fienberg, 75.

    The aftermath of the tragedy still pervaded life in the Squirrel Hill neighbourhood where the synagogue is located.

    In coffee shops, customers talked about the victims they knew, remembering them as civic-minded, kind and pillars of the community. In the street, friends embraced and comforted one another during the period of raw grief.

    Libby Zal said that Younger was such a fixture in Squirrel Hill that a local store he frequented would send him a "get well" card if he did not appear after three days.

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    Dan Frankel, a Democratic member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, called Younger outgoing and opinionated.

    "He was very interested in social justice and he probably would not have wanted the death penalty (for the gunman)," Frankel said.

    Jodi Smith, a Pittsburgh native, joined mourners ahead of the Wax funeral at the Ralph Schugar Chapel and remembered him as a "very polite, gentle man".

    "I could have claimed him as a father," Smith said. "He was always at the synagogue, always helping out. The synagogue had been his life since his wife passed away a few years ago."

    Fienberg spent 25 years as a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh's Learning Research and Development Center until she retired in 2008.

    "She was an engaging, elegant, and warm person," the centre said on Facebook. 

    'Bridges not walls' 

    The synagogue attack has heightened a national debate over Republican US President Donald Trump's rhetoric, which critics say has contributed to a surge in white-nationalist and neo-Nazi activity.

    His administration denies he has encouraged far-right violence and is instead attempting to unify the US.

    Amid the first funerals for victims on Tuesday, Trump visited Tree of Life. Thousands protested his presence in the city, accusing him of using rhetoric that has fueled anti-Semitism in America.

    Several thousand protesters, a diverse crowd of all ages, held an anti-Trump rally about a block away from the synagogue just as his visit began, singing Old Testament psalms and carrying signs with such slogans as: "We build bridges not walls".

    Trump made no public comments during his visit but wrote on Twitter on Wednesday morning that his office had been "shown great respect on a very sad and solemn day" in Pittsburgh.

    "Small protest was not seen by us, staged far away," he tweeted. "The Fake News stories were just the opposite-Disgraceful!"

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    More than 1,800 people paid their respects on Tuesday at Rodef Shalom, another synagogue in Squirrel Hill, the heart of the city's Jewish community.

    Trump's visit to Pennsylvania's second largest city came a week before midterm elections that will determine whether his Republican Party maintains control of both houses of Congress or whether the Democrats seize a majority in one chamber or both.

    The accused gunman in the synagogue attack, Robert Bowers, was charged on Monday with 29 federal felony counts including hate crimes.

    Earlier this year, the ADL said that anti-Semitic incidents had reached their highest level in more than two decades, swelling by 57 percent in 2017 when compared with the year prior. 

    The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) statistics showed that, in 2016, more than half of the victims in anti-religious hate crimes were Jewish, while another 24.5 percent were Muslim.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies