Monday, March 12, 2007
By Jerome Taylor, Belfast Telegraph, UK
To the police in India, Paramjeet Singh is a "Sikh terrorist" recently arrested with two others for supposedly carrying explosives and handguns with the intention of disrupting the local elections that took place last month.
But to his family and numerous supporters, he is just a musician who happens to sing about human rights abuses in the Punjab and is now paying a high price for speaking out in a region of India where human rights groups are often refused access.
There are suspicions that Mr Singh, a British national and retired foundry worker from Wolverhampton, has been caught up in a miscarriage of justice. Because of the delays built in to the Indian judicial system, he could be imprisoned for up to three years before getting a chance to prove his innocence.
Today he faces a hearing in a Punjab court charged with a string of offences.
Staring at a television screen in their suburban home in Wolverhampton, Mr Singh's wife, Balvinder Kaur, watches a recording of her husband, shackled in chains, from the news report last December that announced her husband's arrest. "This is so hard to watch," she says, wiping away a tear with her pink headscarf. "I can't forget that day, I can't believe what he's going through."
On 23 December, police in the Punjab claimed they had uncovered a major terrorist plot aimed at disrupting the elections. They called a press conference and displayed a vast array of weapons, including RDX explosives, grenades and hand guns, which they alleged were found in the boot of a Sikh nationalist's car. Three suspected terrorists had been arrested.
One of the three arrested was Mr Singh, who was in India with his wife and baby granddaughter buying supplies for a holiday home he was building in his ancestral village. The weapons, police claimed, were found in his car. The next day Mr Singh and his co-accused, Amolek and Jaswinder Singh, appeared in court charged with terrorist-related crimes. Despite police protestations, they were permitted to speak briefly to the media. All three of them claimed they had been tortured overnight by policemen who wanted them to sign a written confession.
"He was in such a state," remembers Ms Kaur. "His legs were painful and he could barely walk. He said they kept standing on his back and legs to try and force him into signing a confession."
Within 24 hours Indian reporters had unearthed discrepancies in the evidence against the three men, and soon the police began changing their story.
Not only did the police repeatedly alter exactly where they had arrested the three men, but during a second press conference held by the authorities the next day, they said they had in fact not found the explosives in Mr Singh's car but in a haystack on land near his farm in the village of Gakhal.
Doubts were soon cast on those accusations when local reporters went to Mr Singh's village immediately after the press conference and could not find a single villager that had seen a policeman for more than a week. Protests soon erupted outside the prison nearby demanding the three men's release.
Further suspicions about the police evidence were then published after a woman claimed two days later that she had seen police digging a hole in the haystack near Mr Singh's farm, trying to make it look like they had found the weapons cache.
Mr Singh's daughter Ravi Gakhal, a lawyer based in Birmingham, believes her father's arrest was politically motivated.
She is concerned by the fact that the evidence against her father is similar to that in the case of another British Sikh activist who spent three years in an Indian jail before being cleared of all charges.
Balbir Singh Bains was arrested in 1999 by Delhi police who said they had found a consignment of RDX explosives. When Mr Bains finally had his day in court, the judge threw out the charges, calling them a "balloon of falsehoods" after it emerged the RDX in question had come from a police warehouse.
A spokesperson from the Foreign Office said that consular officials have visited Mr Singh in prison.