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Lawsuit filed for rights violation of Sikh prisoner in NY

By Suman Guha Mozumder in New York
December 01, 2005 12:16 IST
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A lawsuit has been filed in a federal court in Manhattan to enforce the religious freedom of a Sikh prisoner who has been on a liquid diet since June to protest alleged rights violations.

The lawsuit filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, stems from the violation of religious rights of Navdeep Singh, a devout Amritdari Sikh, who started serving a five-year sentence in Fishkill Correctional Facility in New York from January.

The lawsuit alleges that Fishkill personnel repeatedly tormented Singh with their disrespectful handling of religious scriptures with unclean hands and deliberate destruction of the texts by bending and tearing the Sikh Holy Scriptures.

Singh, according to Manwinder Singh, director for International Civil and Human Rights Advocacy of United Sikhs, was put in solitary confinement for refusing to shave his beard; his religious articles were confiscated and he was not allowed to wear his kara, kacchera or turban.

The lawsuit challenges the practices of New York Department of Correctional Services' personnel for the gross violations of Singh's religious rights in prison.

Along with the Commissioner Glenn S. Goord of DOCS and the acting superintendent of Fishkill Correctional Facility, who are sued for injunctive relief to end the discrimination, the complaint seeks injunctive relief and damages from 15 other prison officials of Fishkill.

'The lawsuit highlights the unfair practices in the Fishkill Correctional Facility. The burdens and limitations imposed by the defendants on Navdeep are particularly unjustified because they are inconsistent with accommodations which the New York State Department of Correctional Services has made for other incarcerated persons of other religious groups, including Christians, Muslims, Jews, Native Americans, and Rastafarians, to name a few,' according to the suit filed by attorney Rubin on behalf of Singh.

In a rare display of interest in the rights of prisoners, Congress unanimously passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, giving special protections to religious practices inside prison walls.

"Navdeep Singh's case shows that legal action is necessary to make sure that RLUIPA's protections are real," said Milton Zelermyer, an experienced prisoners' rights lawyer with the New York Legal Aid Society, which has supported this legal action.

The filing of the lawsuit comes two weeks after the Sikh Coalition brought to public notice, similar incidents of Sikh prisoners in two California jails being allegedly punished by authorities for trying to resist attempts to have their hair cut and for wearing turbans at all times in their confinement in deference to their religious practices.

These inmates in Solano State Prison and San Quentin State Prison have punished the Sikh prisoners for refusing to comply with official orders to keep their hair not more than 3 inches and to remove turbans, according to the Sikh Coalition that has taken up cudgels on behalf of the victims.

"The punishments in the two prisons, include loss of recreation or exercise time, loss of phone time, decrease in the number of good behavior credits needed to reduce their prison terms," Amardeep Singh Bhalla, legal director of the coalition who has sent a protest letter to Jeanne Woodford, Director of the California Department of Corrections, told

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Suman Guha Mozumder in New York