Rikers Island Imam Charles Bilal proclaimed his innocence through his attorney at a press conference outside his Jamaica mosque on Friday. The religious leader had been arrested in a prostitution sting days earlier for allegedly paying an undercover cop, posing as a hooker, $25 for sex.
“This is a huge injustice,” said Bilal’s lawyer Elliot Leibowitz. “We have a witness who is going to come forward who was there and will testify that none of the allegations presented are true. They’re all lies.”
Bilal, a father of five, was busted at around 11 p.m. at a Howard Johnson Inn on Rockaway Boulevard near 137th Avenue in South Jamaica, according to published reports Leibowitz said Bilal went to the location to meet a friend and did not have any interaction with the undercover cop whom the NYPD said he propositioned.
“Almost immediately upon his appearing, there was a signal and he was confronted by four or five police cars, and it was an instantaneous arrest,” Leibowitz said.
He added that he believes it is possible his client was either set up by his “friend” or the cops and emphasized that an imam would never engage in such behavior, particularly not during the holy month of Ramadan.
“I saw him in the lockup and it was very dismaying and disturbing to see how he was treated in a very shabby manner,” Leibowitz said. “The judge released him under his own recognizance. We’re fighting this case and I am certain, to the extent that I can be, that we are going to prevail.”
As a result of the incident, the Department of Correction has suspended Bilal, who runs the Masjid-Al-Hamdu-Li-Llah mosque on Sutphin Boulevard, from his job as chaplain at the jail, where he has worked since 1990.
This is not Bilal’s first run-in with the law. He has been arrested 18 times since 1970, for crimes including robbery, grand larceny, criminal possession of stolen property and bribery of a public official, according to published reports.
“The criminal history is over 25 years old,” Leibowitz said. “He also has a more recent history of dedicated and exemplary work as the chaplain in the prison system, tending to the needs of Islamic detainees for 25 years.”
Last year, during an unsuccessful run for the 28th District City Council seat to replace the late Tom White Jr., who had died earlier that year from cancer, a city marshal found a 9mm semi-automatic pistol in Bilal’s car after it was towed for unpaid parking tickets.
Bilal said a youth had asked him to turn in the weapon at an area precinct as part of the gun buyback program. After an investigation, the imam was not charged.
Bilal’s wife of 38 years was present at the press conference, though she did not speak and declined to be interviewed.