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Sikh-Canadian activists put on no-fly list after Trudeau’s India visit; critics say aim was to appease Indian government

Sikh-Canadian activists put on no-fly list after Trudeau’s India visit; critics say aim was to appease Indian government
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At least three Sikh-Canadian activists have been added to the Canadian no-fly list in recent months, more evidence the federal government may have changed its approach to advocates of Punjabi independence after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s controversial India trip.

Under the Secure Air Travel Act, the three have been told there are reasonable grounds to suspect they might “threaten transportation security,” or travel by air to commit terrorist acts. Two of the three have filed court challenges to the decisions, saying the system for barring people from air travel is unfair and violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

One had flown from Ontario to Vancouver, only to be told when he attempted to board his return flight he was on the list, requiring him to drive back across the country.

Critics say they suspect the no-fly additions were made to appease New Delhi after Trudeau’s visit in February 2018 brought to the surface the Indian government’s growing concerns about Sikh extremism.

Moninder Singh, president of a major B.C. gurdwara, or Sikh temple, and an outspoken community leader, said the three activists who contacted him all received notice of their no-fly designation last year — in the wake of the prime minister’s ill-fated tour.

Maybe these are key people they’re focusing in on, trying to silence, and this is one of the ways to do it

“They are activists, all of them in the Sikh community, quite vocal, against India in many ways,” Singh said. “Maybe these are key people they’re focusing in on, trying to silence, and this is one of the ways to do it. Stop them from being able to move around, make them feel they are being cornered.”

Singh linked the apparent trend to the latest, controversial edition of an annual Public Safety Canada report on terrorist threats, which included alleged Sikh extremism for the first time. That reference sparked outrage among community leaders, prompting the government earlier this month to remove the specific mention of Sikhs or Khalistanis — those who advocate for an independent Sikh homeland in Punjab state. The report now cites those pushing for the separation of part of India.

Tim Warmington, a spokesman for Public Safety Canada, said security reasons prevent the department from commenting on who is added to the “passenger protect” list or how many people are on it.

“Individuals can only be added if they meet the legal threshold under the act,” he said.

Bhagat Singh Brar was given written notice at the Vancouver airport on April 24, 2018. He appealed to the government’s Passenger Protect Inquiries Office, which provided an unclassified summary of the information used in his case, and indicated Public Safety Canada had other, classified material, as well.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale upheld the original decision on Dec. 21.

Parvkar Singh Dulai received notice at Vancouver airport last May 17, with Goodale eventually confirming the decision this Jan. 30, his court filing says.

Moninder Singh said a third Sikh-Canadian man found out in December he was on the list.

Richard Fowler, Brar’s Vancouver-based lawyer, would offer little comment as the case is before the courts, but claimed the evidence the government showed his client to back up its decision was “unbelievably thin,” including clippings from Indian media outlets that are often overtly pro-government.

The challenge of the legislation itself is based on the “almost impregnable” decision-making process behind the no-fly list, Fowler said. Blocked passengers are barred from seeing any information used against them if the government believes doing so would endanger national security or individual people.

Fowler suspects the recent inclusion of Sikhs is a response to the strained Canadian-Indian relationship. “It’s not a coincidence that people were added after the prime minister returned from what was widely described as a calamitous trip to India,” he said.

Trudeau’s tour was marred by a series of widely mocked photo opportunities, and the attendance at an event of Jaspal Atwal, convicted of attempting to murder a visiting Indian cabinet minister in B.C. in 1986.

Before the trip, Canadian officials held several meetings with their Indian counterparts to “address more effectively India’s growing concerns regarding the rise of extremism,” a parliamentary committee said in its report on the episode.

There were also charges of meddling by New Delhi. In a background briefing with Canadian media, the prime minister’s national-security advisor suggested the Indian government may have been behind the spread of the Atwal story.

The parliamentary committee’s findings on allegations of “foreign interference,” however, were censored from the public version of its report.
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