Milwaukee, USA— A lawsuit filed in the wake of the Sikh temple massacre in August -it has international implications for Sikhs and officials in India – continues to take turns of intrigue in federal court in Milwaukee.
Lawyers for the chief minister of Punjab in India, named as defendant in the human rights claim, have asked a judge to rein in efforts by the plaintiffs, Sikhs for Justice, to prove the case was properly served.
But U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman turned down the request and allowed further investigation of the matter last week, including the deposition of area businessman and philanthropist Darshan Dhaliwal.
A deposition of a surprise defense witness earlier in the week revealed more details about his claim to have been the person actually served by mistake, including that he spent hours before his testimony in a hotel room with Indian officials who work under the Punjab minister.
Every step in the case continues to make news among the Sikh community worldwide.
Parkash Badal, the Punjab chief minister, had planned a trip to the Milwaukee area last summer to attend Dhaliwal’s daughter’s wedding. Two days before he arrived, a gunman attacked the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, killing six people and then himself. Badal, whose region is home to thousands of Sikhs, found himself thrust into the news as he met with survivors and spoke to area reporters.
Seizing a rare opportunity, the human rights group Sikhs for Justice sued in Milwaukee under the Torture Victim Protection and Alien Tort laws, which grants jurisdiction in U.S. courts. The suit contends that Badal oversaw torture and murder of Sikhs in India, where the religious minority has been the subject of persecution by the Hindu majority.
The plaintiffs claimed to have served Badal at Oak Creek High School at a Justice Department community forum on Aug. 9.
But at a hearing last month, attorneys for Badal – former federal prosecutors Steven Biskupic and Michelle Jacobs – produced an Illinois man who said he was the person to whom the West Allis process servers gave papers, not Badal. Surinder Singh Kalra said he had been invited to the forum to act as interpreter for Sikhs who didn’t speak English.
Adelman said that while it seemed the process servers made a mistake, the hearing raised enough uncertainty to allow 30 more days of discovery.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers took Kalra’s deposition on March 11, and they say it suggests further that Badal or his agents may have influenced the testimony. The West Allis men who testified in February that they served Badal attended the deposition, saw Kalra in person, and gave sworn statements that he was not the man they served Aug. 9.
At his deposition, Kalra, 69, said he had never been asked to serve as an interpreter before he was requested, by email, to serve the function at the Aug. 9 meeting. He again described standing at the meeting when someone handed him what appeared to be some kind of court papers, and then quickly left.
Kalra said he intended to give the papers to someone from the Justice Department but was absorbed in talking with Sikhs about questions they would like posed in English during the meeting. He said he eventually forgot about the papers and left them in a folder in his car trunk.
Kalra said he was probably in and out of his trunk dozens of times over the next few months, but either didn’t notice or care about the folder because he had already done his duty interpreting at the Aug. 9 meeting, and because the folder may have slid among books he also had in the trunk.
In late January, he said, he got a call from Dhaliwal asking about the papers he got in Oak Creek. He said he told Dhaliwal he didn’t know what happened to the papers, but the next day, in an affidavit he made at Dhaliwal’s request, said he had left them on a table with some Justice officials.
He said Dhaliwal was aware of the papers because photos or video taken at the forum – video and photographs the plaintiffs’ lawyers are now also trying to obtain – showed Kalra getting served. That evidence, if it exists, was not presented at the February hearing.
Kalra said he wasn’t aware of the lawsuit when he had signed the affidavit and only learned of it Feb. 14 in an email from Biskupic. On Feb. 18, Kalra said, he was cleaning his car when he discovered the long-missing folder holding the summons and complaint that the plaintiffs contend was served on Badal.
Biskupic came to his house in Illinois within hours, inspected the documents and gave Kalra a subpoena to appear in federal court on Feb. 21.
On that day, Kalra said, a cab sent by Biskupic’s office picked him up and took him to the Pfister Hotel, across the street from the Milwaukee federal courthouse, where he was met by someone and then taken to a room at the hotel, where he spent two to three hours with some Indian government officials before he testified.
At his deposition, Kalra said he didn’t know the officials or why they were there, and that he didn’t discuss his expected testimony with them.
In their latest filings, the Sikhs for Justice have submitted affidavits from two people who say Kalra was present at a December meeting where the suit against Badal was discussed.
In his motion to limit the plaintiffs’ extra discovery efforts, Biskupic wrote that Kalra’s deposition was being falsely reported on Indian and Sikh news sites as a “confession,” which caused Kalra great distress.
The plaintiffs have countered with an affidavit from a Sikh in California who said his relatives in Punjab have been threatened and harassed since the news that he is one of the plaintiffs in the suit against Badal.
Both sides will have time to file more briefs based on the extra discovery before Adelman rules on whether Badal was in fact served with the lawsuit. The ruling would allow the case to move forward or dismiss the case for lack of service.