Suspect charged over shooting of Palestinian students in US

28 Nov 2023 09:15am
This handout photo provided by the Burlington Vermont Police Department on Nov 27, 2023, shows the booking photo of Jason Eaton. - AFP / Burlington Vermont Police Department
This handout photo provided by the Burlington Vermont Police Department on Nov 27, 2023, shows the booking photo of Jason Eaton. - AFP / Burlington Vermont Police Department

NEW YORK - An American man on Monday was charged with attempted murder in Vermont over the shooting of three men of Palestinian descent, in a crime authorities described as an act of hatred.

Vermont state attorney Sarah George said there was not yet sufficient evidence to support a hate crime enhancement of the charges against the suspect, identified as Jason Eaton, 48.

But "I do want to be clear," George told reporters in Burlington, the northeastern US city where the shooting occurred. "There is no question this was a hateful act."

Police said the gunman stepped off a front porch and -- "unprovoked" -- opened fire on the three college students as they walked together Saturday on a city block.

The attack comes during heightened tensions in the United States over the Israel-Hamas war. College campuses and other locations have seen mounting threats and incidents of violence including acts of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.

President Joe Biden said he was "horrified" by the shooting of the students, who had gathered to observe the American holiday of Thanksgiving.

"There is absolutely no place for violence or hate in America. Period," Biden said in a statement.

The attack also prompted anger and shock among several US lawmakers.

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Eaton was arrested Sunday, and appeared before a judge in a Burlington court on Monday. NBC reported he pleaded not guilty to the shootings.

Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad described how law enforcement agents encountered Eaton when they knocked on his apartment door, and he responded by saying "I've been waiting for you."

When the agents asked why, Eaton said "I would like a lawyer."

Authorities searched the premises and retrieved a weapon and ammunition that matched the shells recovered from the scene of the shooting.

- 'Domestic violent extremists' -

US Attorney General Merrick Garland warned Monday of increasing threats from "domestic violent extremists" amid growing attacks against minority groups, as he vowed a full investigation into the shooting.

"There is understandable fear," Garland said, as the United States experiences a "sharp increase" in threats and attacks against Jewish and Muslim communities since Oct 7.

Burlington police had earlier described the shooter as a white man with a handgun.

"Without speaking," police said, "he discharged at least four rounds from the pistol and is believed to have fled on foot."

A police statement said two of the victims were in stable condition, and the third suffered "much more serious injuries." It said two are US citizens and one a legal resident.

Two of the young men were wearing keffiyehs, the traditional black and white Palestinian scarf.

All three victims were graduates of the Ramallah Friends School, a private Quaker school in the West Bank, and are now attending different universities in the northeastern United States.

"This was a crime fueled by hate," the families said in a statement.

"We welcome the decision by law enforcement and the Vermont Attorney General's office to continue the investigation and pursuit of hate crimes charges.

"We believe a full investigation is likely to show our sons were targeted and violently attacked simply for being Palestinian." - AFP