Nearly one year after being nabbed in a prostitution sting during the holy month of Ramadan, a jailhouse imam is still proclaiming his innocence in a case set to go to trial in September.
Charles Bilal, an imam at Rikers Island and in Jamaica, allegedly paid an undercover cop, posing as a hooker, $25 for sex in August 2011. He was arrested at around 11 p.m. at a Howard Johnson Inn on Rockaway Boulevard near 137th Avenue in South Jamaica.
Bilal’s lawyer, Elliot Leibowitz, said the religious leader went to the location to meet a friend and did not have any interaction with the undercover cop whom the NYPD said he propositioned.
“Everyone in the community knows my character — how I try to keep the neighborhood clean from drugs and prostitution,” Bilal said in an interview with the Chronicle last Thursday. “Why would I, at the same time, be dirtying it up again by soliciting a prostitute?”
Bilal, a married father of five, said the arrest and resulting media attention has strained his relationship with his wife and embarrassed his children. He is hoping that he will be found not guilty at trial so he can put the incident behind him and move on with his life. Bilal runs the Masjid-Al-Hamdu-Li-Llah mosque on Sutphin Boulevard in Jamaica.
“I am not giving up, because I am innocent,” Bilal said. “They have no evidence against me. They have no recordings of me and that woman.”
As a result of the incident, the city Department of Correction suspended Bilal without pay for 30 days from his job as chaplain at the jail, where he has worked since 1990.
He returned to work on Sept. 23, 2011, but was placed on modified duty, and was “just sitting in the office, doing nothing,” until three weeks ago, when he retired.
“They didn’t treat him very well at all,” Leibowitz said of the DOC.
The prostitution bust was 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.
During a press conference in the days after the arrest Leibowitz noted that Bilal’s rap sheet is decades old and that he 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.”
In 2010, during an unsuccessful run Bilal mounted 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 9-mm semi-automatic pistol in his 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.