A man police mistakenly identified as a suspect in Sunday’s Quebec City mosque shooting said he ran into the building to save lives, not take them.
After police cleared him of suspicion, Mohamed Belkhadir, 29, an engineering student, told La Presse that he had been at the Islamic Cultural Centre earlier for evening prayers and ran back after he heard gunshots.
“I went inside to try to give first aid to my friend on the ground, and I saw someone with a weapon,” Belkhadir said in French. “I didn’t know he was a policeman. I thought it was someone who came back to shoot. So I fled outside, on the parking side.” That’s where police, assuming he was a suspect, grabbed him.
Belkhadir added that he was the one who called police to the scene. He said he bears no ill will toward the authorities for the error.
“I understand,” he said. “I respect that they caught me. They saw me flee, they thought I was suspicious, that’s normal. For them, someone who flees is a suspect.”
Those familiar with Belkhadir, a Canadian of Moroccan origin, showered him with praise.
“This man is a gentleman and he is so kind and everything, so we didn’t believe it,” Ali Assafiri, another member of the mosque, told Canadian outlet CBC.
Police initially released the names of Belkhadir and Alexandre Bissonnette, a French-Canadian university student. Hours later, they cleared Belkhadir and said Bissonnette was the sole suspect.
CBC and other news outlets removed both names from their coverage when police announced that one of them was merely a witness. Many reports had already focused on Belkhadir roots in Morocco, a largely Muslim country.
“[T]his is exactly why no responsible news organization ... should rush to depict the shooter as Muslim and of Moroccan descent when so little is known about what happened,” The Intercept wrote. “All day long, people around the world cited these reports to justify Trump’s [Muslim] ban as well as their own ugly views of Muslims.”
One of them was Pamela Gellar, co-founder of the American Freedom Defense Initiative, which the Southern Poverty Law Center defines as a hate group. She boasted on her Facebook page that she was right in assuming the shooters were Muslim.
“As I predicted last night, the shooters in the Quebec mosque attack are Muslim as is generally the case in these circumstances,” Gellar wrote. “The jihadis were shouting ‘Allahu akbar’ as they gunned down men worshiping at a Quebec mosque.”
Gellar later posted a curt acknowledgment that one of the suspects turned out to be a witness, but failed to correct any posts about the shooting on her website.
Others, meanwhile, blasted Twitter with reminders that Belkhadir is a hero.