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U.S. family works to free Sikh brother on India's death row

WASHINGTON — Tejinder Bhullar's brother might be hanged at any time, achingly far from Bhullar's Sacramento Valley home.

The Indian government calls Bhullar's brother a terrorist who confessed to a murderous conspiracy. Bhullar calls his older brother, Devinderpal, an innocent man bent by torture. Against international odds, he's trying to save his sibling by making him a cause celebre and a symbol of ethnic oppression.

"I'm really proud to be an American, because I know I could get justice over here," Bhullar said. "But in India, if you are a Sikh, there's a good chance you won't see justice."

This month marks the 10-year anniversary of Devinderpal Singh Bhullar's conviction on conspiracy charges, but his case resonates well beyond one family's fears. His fate is followed closely within the United States' expatriate Sikh community. It also underscores how anti-terrorism priorities in all their severity can dominate both diplomacy and police work.

Tejinder Bhullar is 32, a married postal worker living with his wife and mother in Live Oak, near Sacramento. They are among an estimated 200,000 Sikhs living in California, for many of whom the Bhullar case is a foreign affair that hits home.

"Everybody knows about it," said Fresno, Calif., resident Harjinder Dhillon, a former president of the Sikh Association of Fresno. "His life should be spared."

Prosecutors say Devinderpal Bhullar helped plot a 1993 bombing of a Youth Congress office in New Delhi that killed nine people and injured 29 others. In August 2002, a divided Indian Supreme Court upheld the conviction and death sentence under the country's now-defunct Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Prevention Act.

Indian authorities identified Devinderpal Bhullar as a member of the Khalistan Liberation Force. In its heyday during the 1990s, the group fought for Sikh independence in the Indian state of Punjab.

Tejinder Bhullar, though, insists his brother was neither a militant organization member nor a bombing conspirator. A resident of the United States since the early 1990s, Bhullar now speaks, writes and travels on his brother's behalf.

"He was not involved in any independence party," Bhullar said. "He was against the killing of innocent people, and he was very vocal about that."

His brother's confession was wrung out through torture, Bhullar said. It's not necessarily a far-fetched claim. Indian citizens "alleged that authorities used torture to coerce confessions ... (and) to extort money or as summary punishment," according to the U.S. State Department's 2010 Human Rights Report.

Indian embassy officials did not respond to several calls seeking comment.

One former Indian diplomat, while not ruling out the possibility that "there may have been third-degree methods, as there were at Guantanamo Bay," stressed that India does not engage in systematic torture.

Harsh Bhasin, now a professor at Stony Brook University, also noted that relations between Sikhs and the central Indian government have improved to the extent that a Sikh is now the country's prime minister.

"In the past, there was a temporary alienation, but then the Sikh community came around," said Bhasin, who formerly served as India's consul general in New York City. "It took a few years, but things came back to normal."

Certainly, Indian leaders remain concerned about domestic terrorism. This could shape how U.S. officials perceive Bhullar's case.

In a March 2009 meeting with FBI Director Robert Mueller, for instance, Indian intelligence officials warned that "Sikh extremism in Punjab is a concern" and that some Sikh militants are "maintaining a tempo of jihad," according to a secret State Department memo made available to McClatchy by WikiLeaks. There is no documented indication that State Department officials have raised Bhullar's fate with Indian counterparts.

"The U.S. supports due process and a fair and transparent trial for all people, but beyond that, this is a matter for the Indian authorities," said Beth Gosselin, a State Department spokeswoman.

Prior to his arrest, Devinderpal Bhullar was a mechanical engineer and college instructor. His family members say he was targeted because he was a vocal human rights supporter.

Bhullar's mother, Upkar Kaur, is now a U.S. citizen. She plays a behind-the-scenes role on Devinderpal's behalf. Soon, for instance, she will be signing letters beseeching members of Congress for help.

Tijender Bhullar is more often the public face of the lobbying campaign, along with an organization called Sikhs for Justice.

In late July, for instance, Bhullar addressed several hundred supporters rallying outside the United Nations in New York. In June, a similar rally was held in Toronto. None of the rallies have moved the State Department or the United Nations to weigh in on Devinderpal Bhullar's behalf.

"They are very quiet on this right now," said Gurbatwant Pannun, legal adviser to Sikhs for Justice.

No execution date has been set. India has not executed anyone since 2004.


State Department 2010 Human Rights Report on India


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