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Imam can skip testimony in lawsuit over shooting death at Tampa mosque

No information has emerged in court files about what’s behind the death of Rafat Saeed, 36. A mosque security guard awaits trial in the case.
Rafat Saeed, 36, was fatally shot May 20 outside of the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay mosque, 7326 E Sligh Ave. in Tampa.
Rafat Saeed, 36, was fatally shot May 20 outside of the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay mosque, 7326 E Sligh Ave. in Tampa.
Published Sep. 2
Updated Sep. 2

It’s been more than two years since 36-year-old Rafat Saeed was shot dead during a fight in the crowded parking lot of a Tampa mosque.

A man awaiting trial in the slaying was volunteering as a security guard that night and called police right away to report it. His next court hearing is scheduled for November 1.

Still, no information has emerged in court files about what’s behind the shooting.

And now, a court has cut off a search for answers in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Saeed’s widow against the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay, operators of the mosque at 7326 E Sligh Ave. Circuit Judge Caroline Tesche Arkin ruled that mosque leaders — including Imam Arjan Ahmesula — won’t have to answer questions in the suit.

Requiring Ahmesula to testify “would only serve to annoy, embarrass, oppress, or cause him or Defendant (the Islamic Society) undue burden or expense,” Arkin said in her ruling last month. This is “not reasonably calculated to lead to admissible evidence,” she added.

Related: Man fatally shot outside Ramadan gathering had just become U.S. citizen, friend says

The ruling caps more than a year of legal wrangling between the mosque and the victim’s widow, Huda Salim Kareem. Ahmesula could help provide information about the shooting, Kareem’s attorney Sam Badawi argued in court filings.

“As the ‘prayer leader’ of the mosque, the Imam is intimately involved with the members, the mosque politics, and would naturally be involved in dispute resolutions between the members and volunteers of the mosque,” Badawi said in the filings.

In addition, Badawi argued, church leaders were at the gathering of hundreds of people that preceded the shooting May 20, 2019. The leaders may have spoken with witnesses and were intimately familiar with the security arrangements, he said.

Attempts to block efforts to interview Ahmesula amount to an impermissible “mixing of religion with law,” Badawi argued.

No one responded to requests for comment from the mosque — two calls and two emails to two attorneys representing the mosque and to the mosque’s spokesperson at the time the shooting occurred.

The man charged in Saeed’s slaying, Muhammad Rakibul Haque, stepped in front of Saeed’s car as Saeed drove through the parking lot of the mosque, sparking the confrontation that led to his death, according to a Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office report. Saeed got out of the car and the two started fighting.

Haque punched Saeed in his upper torso, then shoved him towards his car before drawing a semi-automatic firearm from his waistband and firing two shots in his direction, witnesses told investigators. One bullet struck Saeed in the lower back, killing him instantly, an autopsy found.

Saeed, a maintenance worker from Iraq who had become a U.S. citizen just a week before he died, and Haque, then 40 and a volunteer at the mosque, knew each other and had been at odds for years, according to court records.

Haque called 911 to report that he had been attacked and responded in self-defense — a claim he repeated later to detectives. He cooperated with the investigation. Two months later, Haque was arrested on a felony charge of second-degree murder with a firearm, a crime punishable by up to life in prison. He was released the following day after posting $250,000 bond.

A prayer service marking the monthlong observation of Ramadan had just let out at the mosque and surveillance cameras were trained on the parking lot. It wasn’t until the video footage was submitted earlier this year as evidence in the criminal case against Haque that Badawi learned Imam Arjan Ahmesula had an important connection to the case, Badawi said.

The video showed Ahmesula and another Imam, Said Al-Albaniat, at the scene of the shooting right after it occurred — before anyone else, “including the police, ambulance and the crowd,” Badawi said.

Still, Judge Arkin granted an “order of protection” to Ahmesula after he testified in a deposition that he did not witness Saeed’s death and had no first-hand knowledge of bad blood between Saeed and Haque.

In opposing the plaintiff’s efforts to question Ahmesula, the Islamic Society pointed to Florida law that defines a communication with a “member of the clergy” as confidential if made “privately for the purpose of seeking spiritual counsel and advice.”

In her lawsuit, Saeed’s widow accuses the mosque of “negligent retention, training and supervision” of the mosque’s “security team,” made up of volunteer members of the congregation.