On April 30, U.S. agents removed human rights lawyer and prominent Sikh nationalist Harpal Singh Cheema from his Yuba County jail cell, told him to change into the musty old clothes he’d been wearing when he was taken into custody in 1997, and transported him, turban-less and barefoot, to the San Francisco International Airport. Not allowed to call his wife, Singh, 48, was placed on a plane to New York, then to Delhi, India—a country where local authorities had detained him without charge and tortured him on four separate occasions years before.
After spending more than eight years in a Marysville, Calif., jail—much of it in 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement—Singh gave up on getting a fair trial in the United States, according to his lawyer. Earlier this year, he waived protection under the Convention Against Torture and told American authorities to go ahead and deport him back into the hands of his torturers.
His case stands as another example of what some contend is a growing phenomenon: the federal government’s abuse of its detention powers when it cannot pursue criminal charges against an immigrant or elicit a final deportation order. In such instances, immigrant advocates allege, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) simply keeps detainees behind bars until they give up their legal cases and leave the country.
“Even in cases where you get a favorable [court] decision, the person is still not set free,” Aarti Shahani, co-founder and organizer at Families for Freedom, says. “I think it’s strategic on their part. They rely on detention to wear people down.”
Singh’s problems arose as a result of his activism for an independent Sikh state called Khalistan, in his native Punjab. An Indian army attack on Sikh holy site the Golden Temple in June 1984 turned a long-simmering Sikh independence movement into a bloody conflict that claimed up to 40,000 lives over the next decade.
Singh attended rallies, organized political events, raised money, and represented and hid Sikh youth accused of being militants, according to evidence presented at his trial and phone interviews with this reporter in 2003.
The last time he was in the custody of Punjab police, it took an Amnesty International campaign and an Indian Supreme Court investigation to gain his release. Then, in the Spring of 1993, Singh and spouse Rajvinder Kaur fled to the United States and applied for asylum. They settled in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Singh got a job as a truck driver, and they had a son. But Singh’s fund-raising and communications efforts on behalf of Khalistan soon ran him afoul of the FBI.
In November 1997, the feds accused Singh of being a terrorist based on “classified” intelligence, and locked him up.
Singh was never allowed to examine the secret evidence against him. Nor was he ever granted a bail hearing. (In 2003, the Supreme Court upheld the federal government’s right to hold an immigrant without granting a bond hearing—regardless of whether the case involved terrorism-related allegations.)
Following two years of court proceedings, Immigration Judge Dana Keener determined Singh did not pose a threat to national security. She stopped short of granting him full asylum, but forbade the then-INS from deporting the couple. Indeed, she noted that Singh “is widely perceived as a moderate and a voice of reason,” and had exercised his influence to secure the release of Romanian Ambassador Liviu Radu, whom Khalistani militants had kidnapped in October 1991.
But federal lawyers appealed her decision.
“What kind of system is this?” asked Singh’s San Francisco-based attorney Robert Jobe, who argued the case all the way up to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, only to have it remanded to a lower court. “Not only did the government get to use secret evidence, which we never got to see, but it used its detention power to coerce a defendant to give up his [asylum] case.”
Harpal Singh Cheema is one of 50 to 100 exiled Sikh separatists whose lives are still at risk in India, according to Notre Dame University’s Cynthia Keppley Mahmood, an expert witness in several dozen Sikh asylum trials worldwide. It’s a reality that Singh was well aware of when he agreed to be deported.
But Families for Freedom’s Shahani isn’t surprised that Singh opted to be sent back. “If you think you’re rotting in jail, you may as well be dead,” she says.
Singh’s jailers “always insulted his religious ways,” wife Kaur says, by forbidding him from wearing his turban and refusing to provide vegetarian food.
“I haven’t seen my face in the mirror for nine years,” Singh reportedly confided to Amarjit Singh, who co-founded the Washington, D.C.-based Khalistan Affairs Center lobby group with Harpal Singh Cheema in 1991 and now serves as its director: He was too ashamed to look at himself bareheaded.
“They didn’t torture him physically, but that’s a mental kind of torture,” said Kaur, by phone through an interpreter.
Today, Singh is being held in a high-security prison in a remote region of the
Punjab and faces court hearings behind closed doors, according to Sikh colleagues and Indian press accounts. Friends and supporters worry about his fate once his case fades from the headlines.
Kaur, who was also granted protection under the Convention Against Torture, remains in the United States with their son, too scared to return to India.
Vijayan Machingal, vice consul for India in San Francisco, refused to comment on the case.
“It’s hard to know how many of these cases there are,” says Jayashri Srikantiah, director of Stanford University’s Immigrants Rights Clinic. But ICE detentions are “the fastest growing incarceration trend” in the country, and the length of time immigrants spend behind bars has been growing, she adds. Experience strongly “suggests there’s a correlation between length of detention and a detainee’s decision to drop their case.”
Camille T. Taiara is editor of New America Media’s “Disappeared in America” series and reports on immigration and post-Sept. 11 civil liberties issues.