By Bill Parry
The NYPD’s investigation into Saturday’s beating of a Muslim shopkeeper in Astoria has been reclassified as a possible hate crime, according to the commander of the 114th Precinct.
The suspect in the attack was arrested and charged with assault and criminal mischief, but after a second interview with 53-year-old Sarker Haque, the NYPD’s Hate Crimes Unit was notified.
“When my guys first got there, at no point did he mention there was a religious epithet,” NYPD Capt. Peter Fortune said. “Maybe he was in shock or there was a language barrier, but since then the victim has mentioned ‘I kill Muslims.’ Once that came out Hate Crimes reopened the investigation.”
It was around 1 p.m. Saturday and Haque was alone in his store, the Fatima Food Mart on 21st Avenue in Astoria, when a stranger entered and began asking if the merchandise was free. He picked up a newspaper and looked at a photo of the woman from the San Bernardino shooting, and then he snapped, according to Haque.
“Out of nowhere he punched my head with his left hand,” Haque said in an interview with the TimesLedger. “I asked him ‘what’s wrong with you?’ and that’s when he said ‘I kill Muslims.’”
Police said Piro Kolvani, a 55-year-old resident of Jacksonville, Fla., then assaulted the Bangladeshi Muslim.
“I ran behind the counter and tried to call the police, but he came behind the counter and started punching me many times,” Haque said. “At one point he fell on top of me and I thought this is where he’s going to kill me. This went on for 7 to 8 minutes when a regular customer of mine came in and saw blood coming from my eye, my nose and my mouth.”
Haque said the customer, a Hispanic man who did not want to be identified, helped him hold down Kolvani until police arrived. They were called to the scene by a passerby, who heard Haque’s screams for help.
“I was terrified, I really was,” the shopkeeper said. Haque was rushed to Mount Sinai Hospital Queens where he was treated for bleeding, bruising and a dislocated left elbow.
“When I came home, I told my wife and she was scared,” Haque said. “I didn’t tell my kids because I didn’t want them to be scared.”
Haque was back in his store Tuesday nursing the injured elbow and a black left eye.
He was still sore and appreciative of the help from his customer and the person who called 911. He was also sure of what triggered the attack.
“He did it because he saw the newspaper,” Haque said. “He looked at that photo for at least 2 or 3 minutes. I don’t want this to happen to anyone, doesn’t matter religion, color, man or woman.”
Elected officials in Astoria were appalled by the attack.
“In our neighborhood and our nation, we pride ourselves on our diversity and tolerance,” state Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) said. Hateful rhetoric leads to hateful and violent acts that must be denounced and dealt with aggressively.”
City Councilman Costa Constantinides (D-Astoria) said, “This targeted assault it unconscionable. This crime is the antithesis of what Astoria is all about. The strength of our community lies in our diversity. This small business owner is part of the fabric of our community and we all condemn this hate crime.”
Kolvani was charged with assault and criminal mischief, according to the NYPD. He was given a desk ticket and told to report to court on Jan. 12.
The investigation by the NYPD’s Hate Crimes Unit continues.
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr