By Nouran Salahieh, CNN
Famed author Salman Rushdie is recovering at a hospital after he was repeatedly stabbed on stage Friday in front of a New York audience in an attack that left him with severe injuries, his family said.
The family of the 75-year-old author — who has for decades lived under threat because of his writings — said he was in critical condition Sunday after the attack, which ended with the assailant held down by staff and guests and Rushdie airlifted to a hospital.
“Though his life changing injuries are severe, his usual feisty & defiant sense of humor remains intact,” his son Zafar Rushdie said in a Sunday statement.
Rushdie was taken off a ventilator over the weekend but was still being treated for injuries including three stab wounds to his neck, four stab wounds to his stomach, puncture wounds to his right eye and chest, and a laceration on his right thigh, Chautauqua County District Attorney Jason Schmidt said Saturday, adding the author may lose his right eye.
The suspect, identified as 24-year-old Hadi Matar, of Fairview, New Jersey, was arrested by a state trooper after the attack and taken into custody.
Authorities are investigating what motivated the stabbing, which has prompted the state to increase police presence in Chautauqua, New York State Police Superintendent Kevin Bruen said.
Rushdie’s writings have won him literary prizes — and much scrutiny. His fourth novel, “The Satanic Verses,” drew condemnation from some Muslims who found it to be sacrilegious. The late Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who described the book as an insult to Islam and Prophet Mohammed, issued a religious decree, or fatwa, calling for Rushdie’s death in 1989.
Iran, in its first official reaction to Friday’s attack, Iran blamed Rushdie and “his supporters.”
“Regarding the attack on Salman Rushdie, we do not consider anyone other than (Rushdie) and his supporters worth of blame and even condemnation,” the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani said in a televised news conference Monday.
Iranian officials “categorically and seriously deny any connection of the assailant with Iran,” Kanaani added, according to Iranian state media. “We have not seen anything else about the individual that carried out this act other than what we’ve seen from American media. We categorically and seriously deny any connection of the assailant with Iran.”
What we know about ‘targeted, preplanned’ attack
Rushdie was being introduced Friday to give a lecture at the Chautauqua Institution when a man lunged onto the stage and stabbed him before a stunned audience.
Staff members and guests then rushed onto the stage and held down the assailant before a state trooper assigned to the event took him into custody, according to New York State Police.
Also injured in the attack was Ralph Henry Reese, another speaker who suffered a minor head injury.
“It was very difficult to understand. It looked like a sort of bad prank, and it didn’t have any sense of reality,” Reese told CNN’s “Reliable Sources.” “And then when there was blood behind him, it became real.”
Joyce Lussier was sitting in the second row when she saw the attack unfold. She heard people screaming and crying, she told CNN, and saw people from the audience rushing up to the stage.
The suspect, Matar, had arrived in Chautauqua at least a day before the event and bought a pass for it two days prior, authorities said.
Schmidt called the stabbing a “targeted, preplanned, unprovoked attack on Mr. Rushdie,” saying Matar traveled to Chautauqua by bus with cash, prepaid Visa cards and false identification.
The felony complaint against Matar indicated a knife was used in the stabbing.
It remains unclear how the suspect may have entered the event armed with a knife. There were no security searches or metal detectors at the event, said a witness whom CNN is not identifying because they expressed concerns for their personal safety.
“We assess for every event what we think the appropriate security level is, and this one was certainly one that we thought was important, which is why we had a State Trooper and Sheriff presence there,” said institution President Michael Hill, who defended his organization’s security plans when asked during a news conference Friday whether there would be more precautions at future events.
On Sunday, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul met with Chautauqua Institute stage crews and the police trooper who helped subdue Rushdie’s alleged attacker, calling them heroes.
“The team that was on the ground here and the EMTs, the firefighters and those who show up and literally kept the man alive as they were transporting him did an extraordinary job,” the governor said.
Suspect, described as a ‘quiet,’ pleads not guilty
Matar — who authorities said has no documented criminal history — pleaded not guilty to charges of second-degree attempted murder and second-degree assault with intent to cause physical injury with a deadly weapon, his public defender, Nathaniel Barone, told CNN on Saturday.
Matar has been “very cooperative” and communicating openly, the attorney said without discussing what was said during those conversations.
“Mr. Matar benefits from the presumption of innocence, a fair trial and due process, as does every individual in our country,” Barone said Monday.
Barone cannot comment on any matters or discussions with Matar due to client confidentiality and looks forward to a preliminary hearing set for August 19, he said.
Matar faces up to 32 years if convicted of both charges, Schmidt said.
Matar was described as being a quiet person who mostly kept to himself.
The suspect had enrolled in April at State of Fitness Boxing Club in North Bergen, New Jersey, the gym’s owner, Desmond Boyle, told CNN.
“You know that look, that ‘it’s the worst day of your life’ look? He came in every day like that,” Boyle told CNN on Saturday.
Matar frequented the gym about three or four times a week and was “a very quiet kid,” gym member Roberto Irizarry told CNN.
“It’s a brotherly environment, family environment — we try to involve everybody. He was to himself, pretty much,” Irizarry said.
Rushdie flooded with support
The attack on the prominent author generated an outpouring of support from leaders worldwide.
US President Joe Biden said in a statement he was saddened by the attack.
“Salman Rushdie — with his insight into humanity, with his unmatched sense for story, with his refusal to be intimidated or silenced — stands for essential, universal ideals. Truth. Courage. Resilience. The ability to share ideas without fear. These are the building blocks of any free and open society,” Biden said.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a tweet he was “appalled” by the attack on Rushdie, who is also a British citizen and after the issuance of the fatwa began a decade under British protection.
“Appalled that Sir Salman Rushdie has been stabbed while exercising a right we should never cease to defend. Right now my thoughts are with his loved ones. We are all hoping he is OK,” Johnson said Friday.
Rushdie’s former wife, TV host Padma Lakshmi, said in a tweet Sunday she was “relieved” Rushdie is “pulling through after Friday’s nightmare.”
“Worried and wordless, can finally exhale. Now hoping for swift healing,” she said.
Press freedom non-profit PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel in a statement said: “PEN America is reeling from shock and horror at the word of a brutal, premeditated attack on our former President and stalwart ally, Salman Rushdie, who was reportedly stabbed multiple times while on stage speaking at the Chautauqua Institute in upstate New York. We can think of no comparable incident of a public attack on a literary writer on American soil.”
“Salman Rushdie has been targeted for his words for decades but has never flinched nor faltered,” Nossel added. “He has devoted tireless energy to assisting others who are vulnerable and menaced.”
As the motive behind Friday’s stabbing remains under investigation, New York’s governor condemned the attack.
“I want it out there that a man with a knife cannot silence a man with a pen,” Hochul said.
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CNN’s Artemis Moshtaghian, Liam Reilly, Samantha Beech, Keith Allen, Adam Pourahmadi, Alex Stambaugh, and Brian Stelter contributed to this report.