Mystery swirls around death of Syrian-born preacher in London

Mystery swirls around gunshot death of Syrian-born preacher in London

It was late morning on a recent bright, sunny day when Abdul Hadi Arwani, a prominent Syrian-born preacher, parked his car on a residential street in northwest London.

Children were still off school for spring break and British workers had just finished enjoying a four-day weekend, making the roads around the capital uncharacteristically calm.

A short time after he pulled up in his dark-colored Volkswagen Passat, Arwani was found dead, slumped behind the steering wheel in broad daylight.

A postmortem examination determined that he had died of gunshot wounds to the chest.

An investigation was immediately launched into the April 7 killing, with counter-terrorism detectives taking over the case from the homicide and serious-crime squad “because of their expertise in the management of investigations with international dimensions and an established liaison network abroad,” British police said.

On Tuesday, the government's prosecution service announced that 36-year-old Leslie Cooper from north London had been charged with murder in connection with Arwani’s death.

Members of the Syrian community in Britain have reacted with shock to the death of Arwani, a well-respected British citizen, teacher and businessman who was once the imam at the An Noor mosque and a vocal critic of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

But as rumors about a possible motive have swirled, authorities have refused to say why they believe Arwani was killed, and strict British reporting restrictions have made it difficult to determine who Cooper is and why he might have wanted Arwani dead.

Was the death a political act, a personal vendetta or a street crime gone awry? Those questions remained unanswered Tuesday.

Arwani, 48, was reportedly forced to flee Syria in 1982 after being sentenced to death for taking photos after the government crushed a rebellion in his home city of Hama. Media outlets also said he had attended protests against the Assad regime outside the Syrian Embassy in London in 2012.

A Muslim community organization, which described Arwani as a teacher, mentor and supporter of its work, said it had started a fundraising project in his memory and had collected more than $8,800 in donations.

“We, as well [as] the community, are deeply saddened by the passing of Abdul Hadi Arwani,” the Al-Ihsan Projects Team said via email.  “He was a voice for transparency within the community.”

One acquaintance cited by BBC Radio said he knew Arwani from anti-Assad demonstrations and believed that the preacher had been back to Syria at least 10 times. During those trips, the man said, Arwani had spoken out against Islamic State and tried to educate Syrian fighters about human rights.

Arwani lived in west London with his wife and six children, who described themselves in a statement as distraught and in a state of shock at the news.

“We have not slept and our minds are a blur as to what happened and why,” said Arwani’s son, Murhaf, calling the crime a “brutal murder.”

“My father was actively involved in the fight against extremism, campaigning for peace and advocating the importance of democracy and freedom.

“He loved the idea of freedom for all, regardless of religion, race and background. He spoke up and out against the crime of terror and oppression wherever he found it. He was an advocate of peace for all and he showed us this in the way he lived his life from day to day.”

What exactly caused Arwani to pull over his car in that location on April 7 is not yet clear, but police say he drove near the same scene around midmorning two days prior.

That first time, authorities said, he had stayed just a short time before leaving. Police did not say how they knew that, but Britain has an extensive video monitoring system.

Cooper appeared briefly before a judge at London’s Camberwell Green Magistrates' Court on Tuesday to be formally charged in the case, but he spoke only to confirm his name and date of birth.

He had a shaved head and a stubbly beard, and wore a gray tracksuit and a white T-shirt, according to reports in British media.

“The Crown Prosecution Service has today authorized the Metropolitan Police to charge Leslie Cooper, 36, with the murder of Abdul Hadi Arwani,” said Rob Davis of prosecution service’s London homicide unit.

Despite the arrest, bafflement about the case among members of the Syrian community here is palpable, especially at a time when their homeland is going through turmoil and Europe offers the promise of a life filled with more safety and stability.

“One feels for the family, they’re going through an extraordinary amount of pain and fear and worry,” said Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding.

“They’re probably worrying about people in Syria and you think you’re safe in London, then this happens. The assumption is that you’re going to be safe here.”

Boyle is a special correspondent.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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