Alleged Sikh extremist vanishes after Canada deports him to Belize

posted on December 18, 2009 | in Category War on Terror | PermaLink

by Jim Bronskill and Sue Bailey (CP)
Source: The Canadian Press
Date: February 15, 2009

Officials in Belize don't know what happened to an alleged Sikh extremist who made global waves when he bought a passport for the tropical paradise after being ordered out of Canada.

Iqbal Singh has quietly vanished.

Ten years ago next month, Singh left Toronto for the Central American fun-and-sun destination.

His arrival in an unsuspecting Belize caused a media sensation. The spotlight glare was apparently intense enough to drive Singh from the oasis he found upon paying about US$50,000 for a passport through a since-cancelled immigrant investor program.

At the time, flummoxed Belizean officials said they hadn't been warned about the terror allegations against Singh.

These days, they're not sure how to find him."We're not certain where Mr. Singh is at this time," said Insp. Bert Bowden of the Belize police department's Joint Intelligence Co-ordinating Center.

"But he no longer resides in Belize."

The Canadian Press reported this week that Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan is reviewing the national security certificate system used to deport Singh. The assessment follows the stall or collapse of recent cases as Ottawa's marquee anti-terror tool comes under increasing fire from judges and human rights advocates who say it's unfair.

But Singh's file and several of the more than two dozen certificate cases that have unfolded during the last two decades raise equally troubling questions about a process used to arrest and remove foreigners linked to terrorism or espionage.

Lorne Waldman, Singh's former lawyer, wonders about the wisdom of shipping a suspected extremist abroad.

"That's an issue that arises in all these cases. Is it a solution to deport someone who's a security threat to some other country where they might pose a greater threat because they won't be under any kind of control?"

"It gets rid of the immediate problem, but it could create other problems down the road, too."

In an interview, Van Loan made it clear that while he couldn't discuss specific certificate cases, deportation is not his first choice for detainees.

"The best possible outcome, if you're facing someone who's planning terrorist activities, or is involved in them, is to successfully prosecute them for those acts."

One of five children, Singh studied aeronautical engineering and became active in Sikh circles in the 1980s in his home state of Jammu and Kashmir in northern India. He preached Sikhism and collected money for those he considered victims of Indian government injustices.

He would later tell the Canadian Security Intelligence Service of being frequently interrogated and tortured on at least three occasions by Indian police.

Singh said the police threatened his life if he refused to reveal the names of associates.

With $1,000 raised by his family through sale of some land, and with false passports provided by a fellow member of the Sikh student federation, Singh made his way to Nepal. From there he flew to Thailand and Korea before heading to Vancouver and finally Toronto.

Singh obtained refugee status in 1993 and became a successful truck driver. But he also drew the attention of CSIS, whose officers interviewed him several times between 1992 and 1995.

In April 1998 he was arrested and jailed under a national security certificate, a seldom-used provision of the immigration law allowing indefinite detention and secret evidence.

After reviewing Singh's testimony and a six-volume intelligence report prepared by CSIS, Federal Court Justice Marshall Rothstein said there were reasonable grounds to believe Singh belonged to the Babbar Khalsa, a terrorist group intent on establishing a separate Sikh homeland.

The spy service says Talwinder Singh Parmar, the now-dead lead suspect in the 1985 Air India bombing that killed 329 people, most of them Canadians, established the Babbar Khalsa chapter in Canada.

Rothstein found Singh had sent money to the wife of a hijacker in India, received calls from a key Babbar Khalsa member and took in the wife of a former leader of the organization when she came to Canada.

Singh consistently denied involvement in extremist activities.

After Rothstein upheld the certificate, Waldman argued Singh shouldn't be sent back to India for fear of torture by the authorities.

Singh began exploring alternatives. He obtained a visa to Zimbabwe in October 1998, only to see it cancelled five days later once officials in that country's high commission to Canada discovered his status.

Six weeks later, a hand-delivered letter informed Singh his escorted "removal from Canada" to New Delhi, India, had been scheduled for Dec. 21 on a flight via Amsterdam.

But he persuaded the courts to delay his deportation.

Lawyer Jaswinder Gill, who took over the file from Waldman, says Singh was determined to avoid returning to his birthplace. "He wanted to go anywhere else."

Surfing the Internet at the Toronto West Detention Centre, Singh discovered Belize's economic citizenship program, which granted a passport to investors willing to pay US$25,000 to a special fund along with another estimated US$25,000 in registration and consultant fees.

Singh obtained Belizean citizenship in late November 1999, and was sent off to the unlikely sun-soaked destination five weeks later.

Scandal erupted when Belize television station Channel 5 got wind of Singh's background.

"I don't think Belize was very happy when they realized what they'd gotten," Waldman recalls.

Singh told the TV station he chose the country's immigration program over ones in the Dominican Republic and the United States because it was cheaper. He denied involvement with the Babbar Khalsa and said he had come to Belize voluntarily.

Jorge Espat, then Belize's immigration minister, explained to the House of Representatives that Singh's application was approved after an Interpol check turned up nothing, and Canadian deportation notes said Singh had entered Canada illegally but did not mention terrorism.

When opposition member Michael Finnegan revisited the matter in May 2000, then-Communications and Immigration minister Maxwell Samuels said Singh was still a Belize citizen, and that he had become so fed up with media attacks he had left the country.

Finnegan, now Belize's Housing minister, told The Canadian Press he vaguely recalled Singh, but no details. "That's a long time ago."

Samuels, retired from politics, said in an interview he didn't even remember the case.

Waldman says he hasn't heard from Singh, now 43, since he left for Belize. He ran into one of Singh's former associates recently and inquired about his old client. "I asked him, and he said he sort of disappeared off the face of the Earth."

Gill has no idea about what became of Singh either.

A declassified CSIS report that surfaced in early 2001 criticized programs that allow people to buy citizenship, saying they potentially fuel global crime.

"Although most of these countries have seemingly stringent guidelines for verifying identity and denying undesirable applicants, such as requiring birth certificates and criminal records checks, the reality is that guidelines are not adhered to and are easy to circumvent."

In January 2002, Belize abolished its economic citizenship program. Said Finnegan: "Nobody's sorry to see it go."