Lawyer for man accused of attacking Salman Rushdie says client doesn't want offered plea deal

MAYVILLE, N.Y. (AP) — The New Jersey man accused of repeatedly stabbing author Salman Rushdie is not interested in an offered plea deal that would shorten his time in state prison but expose him to federal prison on a separate terrorism-related charge, his lawyer said Tuesday.

Hadi Matar, 26, sat silently in Chautauqua County Court as lawyers outlined a proposal they said was worked out between state and federal prosecutors and agreed to by Rushdie over the past several months.

The agreement would have Matar plead guilty in Chautauqua County to attempted murder in exchange for a maximum state prison sentence of 20 years, down from 25 years. He would then also plead guilty to a yet-to-be-filed federal charge of attempting to provide material support to a designated terrorist organization, which could result in an additional 20 years, attorneys said.

Matar, who has pleaded not guilty, has been held without bail since his 2022 arrest after prosecutors say he attacked Rushdie as the acclaimed writer was about to address an audience at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York. Rushdie was blinded in one eye. Moderator Henry Reese was also wounded.

Chautauqua County District Attorney Jason Schmidt said Rushdie, who was stabbed more than a dozen times and detailed the near-fatal attack and painful recovery in a memoir, “Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder,” favors the “global resolution” proposed in the case, which otherwise could mean two separate trials.

“His preference was to see this matter come to an end,” said Schmidt. Without Rushdie's approval, Schmidt said he would have opposed reducing the maximum state prison term, given the nature of the attack.

“He came into Chautauqua County and then committed this crime, which is not just a crime against a person, but it’s also a crime against a concept of freedom of speech,” Schmidt said.

Matar's attorney, Nathaniel Barone, said Matar wants to take his chances at trial.

“He’s saying, `What have I got to lose?," Barone said after the hearing.

Judge David Foley instructed Matar to discuss the offer with Barone and to provide a definitive answer at his next appearance, on July 2.

Rushdie, who turns 77 on Wednesday, spent years in hiding after the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, or edict, in 1989 calling for his death due to his novel “The Satanic Verses,” which some Muslims consider blasphemous. Rushdie slowly began to re-emerge into public life in the late 1990s, and he has traveled freely over the past two decades.

After the on-stage attack, investigators said they were trying to determine whether Matar, who was born nearly a decade after “The Satanic Verses" came out, acted alone. The federal charge that prosecutors are reportedly considering points to the possibility that he did not.

“The approach is that it was a terrorist organization supported by countries in the Middle East, and that’s how they’re handling it,” Barone said.

“The federal government is taking the position that there was support before it happened,” he said. “I think in order for them to indict or obtain a conviction on any terrorist-related type of charges, they’re going to have to demonstrate that there was support beforehand as part of a conspiracy.”

Barbara Burns, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office, declined to comment on the potential terrorism charge, explaining that the office doesn't confirm or deny investigations.

Matar was born in the U.S. but holds dual citizenship in Lebanon, where his parents were born. His mother has said that her son changed, becoming withdrawn and moody, after visiting his father in Lebanon in 2018. Schmidt has said that Matar got an advance pass to the event where the author was speaking and arrived from New Jersey a day early bearing a fake ID.

Rushdie, whose works also include “Midnight’s Children” and “Victory City,” wrote in his memoir that he saw a man running toward him in the amphitheater, where he was about to speak about the importance of keeping writers safe from harm.

The author is on the witness list, should Matar’s trial go forward as scheduled for September in Chautauqua County.

Carolyn Thompson, The Associated Press