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Alleged theft of Sikh’s turban deemed harassment

The News-Review, OR, USA
Mar. 26, 2008
Chelsea Duncan
www.oregonnews.com

ReligionNewsBlog.com • Thursday March 27, 2008

Ranjit Singh lives his life respecting all religions, all cultures, all people. Every person is equal, the truck driver from Manteca, Calif., said.

Singh, 37, feels he was not shown the same respect while visiting a truck stop in Rice Hill last year. When the turban he wears as a member of the Sikh religion was reportedly snatched from his head, Singh considered the incident an attack on his beliefs.

“That is a very important thing,” he said of the turban, a part of the articles of faith Sikhs wear as a testament to their religion.

He contacted the Sikh Coalition, based in New York, where members lamented what they called a hate crime. The Douglas County District Attorney’s Office pressed felony charges against three suspects, alleging they had taken the turban because of their perceptions of Singh’s religion or national origin.

But last week, a Douglas County grand jury declined to indict the men on those charges, instead accusing them of misdemeanor harassment and third-degree theft.

Singh and his supporters were disappointed with the decision.

Amardeep Singh, the executive director of the Sikh Coalition (no relation to Ranjit Singh), believes the grand jury’s choice reflects a gap in education and knowledge.

“It doesn’t seem that the grand jury got the injury to a whole community that occurs when you go after its most sacred article of faith,” he said.

Yoncalla residents Ryan David Robbins, 21, Kyle Brian Simmons, 22, and Ryan Jeffrey Newell, 28, are accused in the Aug. 25 incident that occurred as Ranjit Singh was walking out of a convenience store, according to court records.

One of the men allegedly grabbed the turban, ran around the building, then drove away with it in a car, according to the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office.

Singh called police, and with the help of a surveillance video from the store, officials were able to track the three men down several days later.

“The allegations are very serious allegations,” said Assistant District Attorney Rick Wesenberg, “and we recognized that.”

Charges of first-degree intimidation, a felony, and second-degree theft, a misdemeanor, were initially filed. The charge of intimidation deals with situations such as assaults or threats committed due to perception of a person’s race, color, religion, national origin or sexual orientation.

“We presented the grand jury with the facts and the law,” Wesenberg said, “and the grand jury made the ultimate decision.”

Because the case is pending against the men, who Wesenberg stressed are innocent until proven otherwise, the prosecutor declined to comment further.

The suspects could not immediately be reached for comment. Robbins’ attorney could also not be reached, and it was unclear whether the other two men have retained attorneys.

The charge of harassment alleges that the men unlawfully and intentionally subjected Singh to offensive physical contact.

Singh and his supporters likely would not disagree with that description, but they believe the most important aspect of the case was lost on the grand jury.

Amardeep Singh believes the jurors apparently viewed the incident as a joke, that the man who took the turban was “a prankster, but not a bigot.”

With the stereotypes left in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Singh doesn’t see how anyone could not understand the implications of stealing a turban.

Sikhs wear turbans and the other articles of faith to express their commitment to follow the mandates of the religion, such as living truthfully and standing for equality and social justice, according to www.sikhcoalition.org.

“It’s a constant reminder that we should always be good honest people,” Amardeep Singh said.

According to the Web site, Sikhism originated in South Asia and has more than 25 million followers worldwide.

As the case proceeds, Singh said advocates hope to get a chance to explain how they feel about the incident to a judge or jury in an effort to educate. They’ve also asked federal officials to open an investigation to pursue so-called hate crime charges.

The grand jury’s decision about the intimidation charges was not all that troubled Amardeep Singh and Ranjit Singh. During the grand jury process, the dollar value of the turban came up for debate.

Ranjit Singh was asked to estimate the value of the turban to determine which level of theft should be charged.

For Singh, there was no way to do that. To him, the turban is sacred, priceless.

“I’m not fighting for four or five dollars,” he said, “I am fighting for justice.”

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