Vermont shooting: Suspect pleads not guilty after Palestinian students shot

Attorney general says FBI is investigating whether shooting was a hate crime

Hisham Awartani, Tahseen Ahmed and Kinnan Abdalhamid were shot on Saturday night on their way to a family dinner in Vermont. AFP
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A man suspected of shooting three Palestinian students in Burlington, Vermont, has pleaded not guilty to three charges of second degree murder.

Jason Eaton, 48, was arrested by agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) while they were searching the area on Sunday afternoon, the Burlington Police Department said.

Mr Eaton appeared in court via video from jail and only spoke to confirm his identity during the arraignment. The judge ordered Mr Eaton to be held without bail.

The three students – Hisham Awartani, Tahseen Ali and Kinnan Abdulhamid – were shot on Saturday night as they were heading to a family dinner.

They had been staying at Mr Awartani's grandmother's house for the weekend and were returning from an outing when they were approached, AP reported.

Burlington chief of police John Murad said Mr Eaton had stepped off his porch, produced a firearm and began shooting at the three men.

Two of the three victims are US citizens, and the third a legal resident. Two of the students were wearing keffiyehs at the time of the attack.

The shooting on Saturday comes amid a rise in Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment in the US since the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel.

Man pleads not guilty in shooting of three Palestinian students

Man pleads not guilty in shooting of three Palestinian students

"I never imagined that this sort of thing could happen, and my sister lives in the occupied West Bank," Rich Price, Mr Awartani's uncle, said during a news conference.

"And people often ask me, 'Aren't you worried about your sister? Are you worried about your your nephews and your niece?' And the reality is as difficult as their life is, they are surrounded by an incredible sense of community.

"To have them come stay with me for Thanksgiving and have something like this happen, speaks to the level of civic vitriol, speaks to the level of hatred that exists in some corners of this country."

All three men were in the intensive care unit at the University of Vermont Medical Centre and are expected to survive their injuries. Mr Awartani, who received a spinal injury during the shooting, "faces a long recovery", said Mr Price.

In a joint statement, the parents of the three students called for a thorough investigation.

“We need to ensure our children are protected and this heinous crime is not repeated,” they said.

Mr Murad said the department is still determining a motive for the alleged attack and urged the community not to jump to conclusions.

The US attorney's office in Vermont said it would assess evidence to determine if a federal crime may have been committed.

Attorney General Merrick Garland said the FBI would be investigating whether the shooting was a hate crime.

“There is understandable fear in communities across the country," Mr Garland said in prepared remarks in New York.

The Friends School in Ramallah, which the three men had attended, said it was “deeply distressed” by the incident.

“We extend our thoughts and prayers to them and their families for a full recovery, especially considering the severity of injuries – as Hisham has been shot in the back, Tahseen in the chest and Kinnan with minor injuries,” the school said in a statement.

All three men are students at US universities. Mr Awartani attends Brown University, Mr Abdulhamid is at Haverford College in Pennsylvania and Mr Ali is at Trinity College.

In a letter to students, Haverford College leadership said it was in contact with Mr Abdulhamid's family.

Brown University president Christina Paxson said “we were very relieved” to learn that Mr Awartani was expected to survive his injuries, the Brown Daily Herald reported.

Mr Murad was expected to hold a press conference on Monday with Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger.

The White House said President Joe Biden had been briefed on the situation.

"And we send our deepest condolences to their families and the broader Palestinian Arab and Muslim American communities," White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters.

"While we are waiting for more facts, we know this: there is absolutely absolutely no place for violence or hate in America."

The FBI office in Albany, New York, said it was investigating the shooting alongside the Burlington Police Department, the ATF and other agencies.

Updated: November 27, 2023, 7:45 PM