By Nouran Salahieh, Nicki Brown, Liam Reilly and Samantha Beech, CNN
The renowned author Salman Rushdie has been taken off a ventilator and continues to recover after being repeatedly stabbed during an on-stage attack in western New York on Friday that left him hospitalized.
“He’s off the ventilator, so the road to recovery has begun,” Rushdie’s agent, Andrew Wylie, told CNN on Sunday. “It will be long — the injuries are severe. But his condition is headed in the right direction.”
The 75-year-old award-winning author — whose writings have for decades brought him death threats — remains in critical condition, according to a family statement released Sunday by his son, but he was “able to say a few words” on Saturday.
“Though his life changing injuries are severe, his usual feisty & defiant sense of humor remains intact,” the statement said.
Rushdie was preparing to give a lecture at the Chautauqua Institution on Friday when a man jumped on stage and stabbed him in several places, including the neck and stomach.
Staff members and guests then rushed onto the stage and held down the suspect, identified as 24-year-old Hadi Matar, of Fairview, New Jersey, before a state trooper assigned to the event took him into custody, according to New York State Police.
“It was very difficult to understand. It looked like a sort of bad prank, and it didn’t have any sense of reality,” said Ralph Henry Reese, another speaker at the event who suffered a minor head injury during the attack. He was taken to a hospital by ambulance and later released with a facial injury.
“And then when there was blood behind him, it became real,” Reese told CNN’s “Reliable Sources” on Sunday.
The author’s injuries include three stab wounds to the right side of the front of 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 during Matar’s arraignment. Wylie previously told the New York Times the attack left Rushdie with liver and nerve damage.
Rushdie was airlifted to a hospital following the attack and underwent surgery, police said. The author may end up losing his right eye, Schmidt said.
“We are so grateful to all the audience members who bravely leapt to his defense and administered first aid along with the police and doctors who have cared for him,” the statement said, “and for the outpouring of love and support from around the world.”
In a tweet Sunday, Padma Lakshmi, the TV host and author’s former wife, said she was “relieved” Rushdie is “pulling through after Friday’s nightmare.”
“Worried and wordless, can finally exhale. Now hoping for swift healing,” she said.
The suspect has pleaded not guilty
Matar 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.
The attorney said Matar has been “very cooperative” and communicating openly, but he did not discuss what was said during those conversations.
Matar was refused bail and remanded to the Chautauqua County Jail. His next court appearance is Friday.
He faces up to 32 years if convicted of both charges, Schmidt said.
The FBI is now working with local and international authorities to investigate the attack at the Chautauqua Institution, which happened in front of an audience as Rushdie was being introduced.
A witness, Joyce Lussier, was sitting in the second row when she saw a man leap across the stage and lunge at Rushdie. She heard people screaming and crying, she told CNN, and saw people from the audience rushing up to the stage.
Another witness, Stephen Davies, who captured video of the moments just after Rushdie was attacked, said he couldn’t tell if the attacker had a knife in his hand, though the felony complaint against Matar indicates he used a knife.
“He lunged onto Mr. Rushdie and started pummeling him with his hand, very quickly,” Davies said. “I was completely stunned and shocked.”
The suspect had a pass to the event that now faces questions over its security procedures
The suspect arrived in Chautauqua at least a day before the event and bought a pass to the event two days prior, Schmidt said during Matar’s arraignment.
Matar traveled to Chautauqua by bus and had cash, pre-paid Visa cards and false identification with him, said Schmidt, who called the stabbing a “targeted, pre-planned, unprovoked attack on Mr. Rushdie.”
There were no security searches or metal detectors at the event, a person who witnessed the attack told CNN. The witness is not being identified because they expressed concerns for their personal safety.
The attack has raised questions about the security precautions at the host institution.
The institution’s leadership had rejected recommendations for basic security measures, including bag checks and metal detectors, fearing that would create a divide between speakers and the audience, according to two sources who spoke with CNN on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Institution President Michael Hill defended his organization’s security plans when asked during a news conference Friday whether there would be more precautions at future events.
“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,” Hill said. “We will assess for each of the events at the Institution what we think the appropriate level of security is and that’s an ongoing process that we work in concert with local law enforcement on.”
Matar — who authorities say has no documented criminal history — was described as being a quiet person who mostly kept to himself. CNN exclusively spoke with State of Fitness Boxing Club owner Desmond Boyle, who said Matar enrolled at the gym in North Bergen, New Jersey in April.
“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.
As the investigation continued, police on Friday evening were seen at a New Jersey home believed to be connected to the suspect.
Rushdie had a bounty on his head
Rushdie’s writings have won him several literary prizes, but it was his fourth novel, “The Satanic Verses,” that drew the greatest scrutiny as some Muslims found the book to be sacrilegious. The book, which sparked demonstrations, was banned in multiple countries.
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.
As a result, Rushdie began a decade under British protection.
The bounty against Rushdie has never been lifted, though in 1998 the Iranian government sought to distance itself from the fatwa by pledging not to seek to carry it out.
However, in 2017, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was asked if the “fatwa against Rushdie was still in effect,” and he confirmed it was, saying, “The decree is as Imam Khomeini issued.”
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CNN’s Kiely Westhoff, Andy Rose, Paul P. Murphy, Aya Elamroussi, Ray Sanchez, Christina Maxouris, Artemis Moshtaghian, Sara Smart and Samantha Beech contributed to this report.