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Action against Indian store owners condemned

January 09, 2006 18:19 IST

Several hundred persons belonging to the Indian community have held a rally in Decatur, Georgia, to protest against the charges of supplying methamphetamine ingredients levelled by the federal authorities against dozens of South Asian convenience stores, alleging they were racially biased.

In June 2005, federal agents had arrested 49 persons, including 44 Indians, many with the surname Patel, and charged 16 corporations, most of them in Northwest Georgia, in what has come to be known as 'Operation Meth Merchant.'

They and the stores were charged with selling products to make methamphetamine. Many of the charges have been dropped, some have resulted in guilty pleas and others are yet to be posted for trial.

Supporters of the accused, including the American Civil Liberties Union, alleged the entire sting operation was riddled with problems.

Many of the defendant s were not even in the country when they were accused of selling ingredients to make the drug, they claimed, adding many of the clerks at the stores spoke limited english and might have misunderstood the obscure drug language used by the informants.

"We are not coming from a criminal background. We have thousands of years of culture and civilisation and we do not know what this drug is about. Putting some innocent people behind bars is not going to solve the problem," Georgia's Asian American Convenience Store Association president Upendra Patel was quoted in a media report.

The rally was held in the parking lot of a strip of mostly Indian-owned shops and restaurants in the city, just east of Atlanta.

Civil rights groups and activists have said that federal authorities were selectively targeting retailers with Indian names.

The prosecution has denied this accusation stressing that Operation Meth Merchant was aimed at ridding a region that has been swamped with drug abuse in recent years.

In a statement yesterday, US Attorney David Nahimas said "The United States Attorney's Office prosecutes cases based on the evidence and the law, not the defendant's race, ethnicity or last name."

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