Press Release: Wednesday, 30 November 2005, (17th Maghar, Samvat 537 Nanakshahi)
New York, NY—UNITED SIKHS and the law firm of O'Melveny & Myers LPP filed a lawsuit in the Federal Court a fortnight ago to enforce a Sikh prisoner's right to practise his religion and to ensure that Sikh prisoners have the same rights as other prisoners. The plaintiff, 24-year-old Navdeep Singh, a devout Amritdhari Sikh, who started serving a 5-year prison sentence in January, has been on a liquid diet since June 6, 2005 to protest the violations of his religious rights.
"In a rare display of interest in the rights of prisoners, Congress unanimously passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 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.
"Imagine not having eaten for more than a month, being admitted into a hospital for malnutrition, and being on the verge of death's door all in the fight for his religious rights. This is the story of Navdeep Singh," said UNITED SIKHS Attorney Steven Rubin, of Pannun The Firm.
The complaint, which was filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, challenges the practices of New York Department of Correctional Services' (DOCS) personnel as gross violations of Navdeep 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 where Navdeep Singh is presently incarcerated and the Downstate Correctional Facility where he was previously. The damages are for severely restricting Navdeep Singh's ability to practice his religion and placing him in segregation for asserting his rights. Click here to read the complaint.
Fishkill personnel repeatedly tormented Navdeep Singh by their disrespectful handling of religious scriptures with unclean hands and deliberate destruction and desecration of the texts by bending and tearing the Sikh holy scriptures, which is considered a grave insult to a Sikh and his/her religious sentiments. "Navdeep 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, said Manwinder Singh, UNITED SIKHS Director for International Civil and Human Rights Advocacy.
"Navdeep seeks the right to practice his religion and an order requiring DOCS to grant all of his reasonable requests for religious accommodations, as required by RLUIPA, DOCS' own Directive, the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution of the State of New York," he added.
"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," added Manwinder Singh, quoting the complaint.
"For example, DOCS permits a Native American inmate to possess several religious items including a medicine bag, an American Rosette on a fabric or leather cord, sacred herbs, smoking pipe and religious artifacts and symbols. In contrast, the defendants have prevented Navdeep from possessing essential religious items, including without limitation, the Kara, a thin iron or steel bracelet worn by Sikhs at all times. Similarly, DOCS permits a Christian inmate to wear a cross pendant, but refuses to permit Navdeep to wear a Khanda, the Sikh pendant," he continued.
Navdeep Singh requests in his complaint : (a) the right to possess his religious articles, books, and pendants; (b) that these items be treated with respect; and (c) that he be provided reasonable accommodations so that he can practice Sikhism, such as set times for prayer and a vegetarian diet.
To read previous Press Releases on UNITED SIKHS civil and human rights advocacy click www.unitedsikhs.org/advocacy_issues.htm
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