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Does justice for crimes committed in India more than 25 years ago lie waiting in a US court?
NEW YORK — Mohinder Singh never saw what happened to his father. But his grandmother watched him hacked to pieces after his eyes were gouged out during the 1984 Sikh massacre in New Delhi.
“My father’s death never leaves me,” said Mohinder, who is now a 27-year-old truck driver in California.
Exhausted by the slow pace of prosecutions in India, a group of Sikhs have opened a new front to seek justice in the United States for the horrific crimes committed more than 25 years ago.
After Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh body guards on Oct. 31, 1984, leaders of the then-Congress Party had a hand in instigating revenge attacks that led to the Sikh massacre. Thousands of Sikhs were killed but there have been few convictions over the subsequent two-and-a-half decades, and not one of a high-profile politician.
In April, Mohinder and Jasbir Singh, who is no relation but lost 26 members of his family in the massacre, filed a civil suit in a New York Federal District Court against India’s Transport Minister Kamal Nath for his alleged role in the anti-Sikh pogrom.
This is the first attempt to seek legal remedy for the carnage in a foreign court. “We are now looking for American justice,” said Jasbir, who was 18 at the time of the massacre and still shudders at the slogan “Blood for Blood.”
He holds backs tears while narrating how his brother-in-law plead for water as his slayers allegedly poured petrol into his mouth and set him on fire. “The bodyguards that shot Indira Gandhi were hanged two days later. ... What about those who murdered my relatives?” he asked.
The legal action is brought under the Aliens Torts Claims Act, which allows foreign citizens to file civil suits for human rights abuses committed outside the U.S. In this case, the petitioners want compensatory and punitive damages from Nath for crimes against humanity and wrongful killing.
While the act dates backs to 1789, it was only in 1980 that it began to be used against individuals and corporations. The American courts have been generous in allowing foreigners to use this law, according to George Fletcher, a law professor at Columbia University who has written the book "Tort Liability for Human Right Abuses."
“These cases are very successful in getting to the trial but much less successful in getting the money,” Fletcher said. “In terms of embarrassing this minister it’s an important case.”
In the handful of cases under this act, however, there are more victories against corporations than individuals, according to Anand Ahuja, a practicing lawyer in New York who taught international law at Howard University.
“It is difficult to nab politicians and government officials because they claim sovereign immunity,” he said, pointing out that two successful convictions had involved American defendants.