A Sikh man who was jailed in Kabul for “falsely claiming” to be an Afghan when he was deported from the UK, and says he was bullied and tricked into making a televised conversion to Islam, has been flown back to Birmingham by the British government.
The case of 23 year-old Baljit Singh highlights concerns about the justice system and the status of religious minorities in Afghanistan as the withdrawal of western troops gathers pace.
Singh was deported from the UK nearly two years ago and was spotted by Afghan government officials as soon as he stepped off the chartered aeroplane that carried the failed asylum seekers, marked out by his distinctive Sikh turban.
He was taken aside for questioning and then was put in prison for 18 months during which he never received a charge sheet, let alone a conviction. Prosecutors told him informally that his crime was falsely claiming to be Afghan.
“The only thing in his file was a note saying ‘this is the day he was arrested’,” said Kimberley Motley, a Kabul-based lawyer who took on his case pro bono and helped secure his release and his return to Britain.
“I wrote to the attorney general’s office saying he is being held without charge, which is illegal. You can’t just keep him indeterminately locked up for no reason.”
But although illegal, his fate was not unusual in Afghanistan, activists say. The country is still struggling to build up its justice system and hundreds of people are jailed without a valid criminal charge.
“There are lots of people in prison in Afghanistan without legal cause, some of whom have completed their prison sentences but not been released, others charged for things that are not a crime under the penal code,” said Heather Barr, Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch.
“His case is unusual, but unfortunately the pattern of being put in prison without anyone finding a section of the law that you violated is not that unusual.”
As well as the prospect of an indefinite spell in prison, in a country he had left when only five years old and where he no longer had friends or close relatives, Singh said he was being harassed for his religion and pressured to convert.
He was verbally and physically abused in prison. One inmate threw boiling water over him, Singh said, pulling out a picture of his bandaged face shortly after the assault.
He was also ordered to sleep in a corner of an outdoor courtyard, next to the toilet, he said. Men had to step over him on their way to relieve themselves, and as they did so, some kicked the turban that marked him out as a Sikh.
“Basically they were trying to say ‘be like us’,” he said of the beatings prior to his conversion, which he described as a superficial change he was tricked and harassed into.
“They said ‘you should say these words’, it was just an accident thing, and they lifted me up and said ‘you are a Muslim’.”
TV cameras were called in to record the moment and despite promises his face would be obscured, it was broadcast along with his name. “They played it on national television. They were very proud that a Sikh converted.”
Singh said the conversion angered the country’s already beleaguered Sikh community, which has dwindled from thousands of families to just a few hundred over 30 years of war and persecution.
“It makes me very sad, now we Sikhs only own four houses round here, most people have sold up,” said Narander Singh, a fortune teller and herbalist who took his own family to India over a decade ago but could not find work so returned to Kabul to support them from a distance.
Many other men were in a similar situation, he said, with Afghan objections to the Sikh tradition of burning their dead a particular irritant. “Day by day, they are trying to leave,” added Singh, who is not related to Baljit.
Baljit, who never lived in Kabul, was part of the wider exodus. He was born in the eastern town of Jalalabad. His father died when he was young and the rest of the family left Afghanistan soon after.
He was separated from his family during a journey through Pakistan, the Middle East and Europe, and ended up in England in 2007.
His first request for asylum was refused, but he remained in the UK pending an appeal, until he was abruptly arrested when he tried to register for marriage in 2010. Shortly afterwards, he was deported following what both he and Motley describe as mistakes by careless lawyers.
“It’s extremely difficult to get asylum in the UK, especially if you are not physically in the country,” said Motley.
“I think by them taking him back to the UK it is a recognition that there was a legal error that took place and that they are trying to correct.”
Barr said the UK government’s decision to deport a Sikh to Afghanistan was “shocking” given the country’s limited religious freedom.
“Religious minorities are a very small portion of the population in Afghanistan, and are sometimes tolerated and sometimes not tolerated. So for the UK to send him back in the first place without carefully considering the situation of Sikhs in Afghanistan and the treatment that would await him is shocking,” she said.
Singh told the Guardian by phone from Birmingham, where he is now seeking asylum, that being there felt “unbelievable”. He had asked that his case not be publicised until he was back on British soil, because of worries it could complicate his departure.
“I never thought I would see the UK again … So many people are still stuck in jail [in Afghanistan]. I am so lucky,” he added.
The British embassy declined to comment on the details of Singh’s case, but suggested that it was convinced he is Afghan, and he was returned to the UK only because that could not be proved.
“Individuals are only returned to a country when there is substantial evidence that it is their country of origin,” an embassy spokeswoman said.
“We have agreements in place with certain countries that mean we will re-admit individuals unable to prove their nationality to the satisfaction of the receiving country’s authorities.”
The Afghan justice ministry said it was not aware of the case, and the attorney general’s office did not respond to requests for comment.