Pittsburgh synagogue gunman charged with 29 counts

Pittsburgh synagogue gunman charged with 29 counts

Robert Bowers, who's suspected of carrying out Saturday's shooting at The Tree of Life Congregation, reportedly shouted “All these Jews need to die" during the attack

Thousands of people gathered for a vigil in the Squirrel Hill neighbourhood on Saturday night in honour of the victims
Thousands of people gathered for a vigil in the Squirrel Hill neighbourhood on Saturday night in honour of the victims

The man suspected of killing 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh has been charged with obstructing the exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death.

Federal prosecutors said Robert Bowers was charged on Saturday night in a 29-count criminal complaint.

The charges also include 11 counts of using a firearm to commit murder, weapons offences and charges alleging Bowers seriously injured police officers while obstructing the exercise of religious beliefs.

Authorities said six people, including four police officers, were also wounded during Saturday’s shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh‘s Squirrel Hill neighbourhood.

“Please know that justice in this case will be swift and it will be severe,” Scott Brady, the chief federal prosecutor in western Pennsylvania, said at a news conference, characterising the incident as a “terrible and unspeakable act of hate”.

The mass shooting came amid a rash of high-profile attacks in an increasingly divided country, one day after a Florida man was arrested and charged with mailing a series of pipe bombs to prominent Democrats and little more than a week before the midterm elections.

The killings also immediately reignited the longstanding national debate about guns: President Donald Trump said the outcome might have been different if the synagogue “had some kind of protection” from an armed guard, while Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor Tom Wolf noted that once again “dangerous weapons are putting our citizens in harm’s way”.

Mr Trump said he planned to travel to Pittsburgh, but offered no details.

Authorities said that just before 10am, the suspected gunman entered the large synagogue with an assault-style rifle and three handguns.

Three separate congregations were conducting Sabbath services in different areas of the large building, according to Michael Eisenberg, the immediate past president of the Tree of Life.

The Pennsylvania attorney general’s office said it was told by victims that a brit milah – a ritual circumcision ceremony at which a baby boy also receives his Hebrew name – was also taking place, though law enforcement officials later said no children were among the dead or wounded.

“It is a very horrific crime scene,” said a visibly moved Wendell Hissrich, the Pittsburgh public safety director. “It’s one of the worst that I’ve seen.”

The survivors included Daniel Leger, 70, a nurse and hospital chaplain who was in critical condition after undergoing surgery, his brother, Paul Leger, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Daniel Leger was scheduled to lead a service on Saturday morning, he said.

Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive officer of the Anti-Defamation League, said the group believes Saturday’s attack was the deadliest on the Jewish community in US history.

“Our hearts break for the families of those killed and injured at the Tree of Life Synagogue, and for the entire Jewish community of Pittsburgh,” Mr Greenblatt said.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was “heartbroken and appalled” by the attack.

“The entire people of Israel grieve with the families of the dead,” Mr Netanyahu said.

“We stand together with the Jewish community of Pittsburgh. We stand together with the American people in the face of this horrendous anti-Semitic brutality. And we all pray for the speedy recovery of the wounded.”

Thousands of people, some holding candles, gathered for a vigil in the Squirrel Hill neighbourhood on Saturday night in honour of the victims, whose names were not immediately released.

A chant of “vote, vote, vote” broke out during the emotional gathering. Some attendees blamed the shooting on the nation’s political climate, and said they took little solace in the planned visit by Mr Trump.

At a political rally in Murphysboro, Illinois, Mr Trump said “the evil anti-Semitic attack is an assault on all of us”.

The synagogue is located in the tree-lined residential neighbourhood of Squirrel Hill, about 10 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh and the hub of Pittsburgh‘s Jewish community.

Mr Eisenberg, the former synagogue president, said officials at Tree of Life had not got any threats that he knew of before the shooting. But he said security was a concern, and the synagogue had started working to improve it.

Chuck Diamond, a former rabbi at the synagogue who retired more than a year ago, said the building is locked during the week, and is outfitted with security cameras. “But on Sabbath it’s an open door,” he said.

“You know, you’re always worried that something would happen,” said Myron Snider, head of the cemetery committee for New Light Congregation, which meets at Tree of Life. ,Mr Snider just got out of the hospital on Thursday and missed Saturday’s service.

“But you never dream that it would happen like this,” Mr Snider added. “Just never ever dream that it would happen like this.”

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