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US-bound kabaddi player arrested

March 04, 2005 19:56 IST

A kabaddi athlete arriving in San Francisco International Airport has been arrested on charges of transporting steroids.

Customs officials stopped Kuljeet Singh, 23, on his return from India. He was initially jailed, but is now out on bail.

"The case is still under investigation," said San Mateo County prosecutor Sheryl Wolcott. "What we do know is he was coming in on a flight from out of the country. The customs agent found what was believed to be 40 containers of steroids, some in liquid form, with syringes, and some in pill form."

Singh's attorney Jeffrey Hayden contends that Singh was unaware the substances were prohibited under California law, but that he had no intention of distributing them.

"My understanding is that most of the substances he had were for his own use," said Hayden. "I have copies of prescriptions he has [from India]. A lot of what he had was not steroids. He had other types of supplements and vitamins."

Singh is currently with his parents in Petaluma, California, where he occasionally helps out at the family's 7-Eleven business. His main income, said his friend Baljinder Bajwa, comes from competing in international kabaddi tournaments, from which he can earn $2000 over a two-day period.

"He's been playing kabaddi since he was 14," said Bajwa, adding that Singh's playing name was 'Maula.' He goes all around the world, England, Canada. He was in India for three and a half months, playing in tournaments."

According to John Singh Gill, a California promoter, a kabaddi player in the U.S. can earn $25,000 to $50,000 a year.

"He's pretty good," said Gill of Kuljeet Singh. "He's in the top 3 or 4 in the United States."

Gill added that Singh's arrest had reverberated through the kabaddi

community in the US, which is dominated by members of the Punjabi community but also includes non-Indians who have taken to the sport.

"People are pretty amazed at what happened," said Gill. "A lot of people got to know that players are using steroids."

At the same time, said Gill, kabaddi is no worse than any other highly physical sport.

"Steroids are everywhere in baseball, football, basketball," he said.

"They're taking a fair share of the market in kabaddi, too. We're trying to set up a test. It will take a couple years to set up a program through organizations where they can test their own athletes. We're definitely working on it."

Bajwa, who also plays kabaddi but non-professionally, argued that Singh's mistake resulted from not knowing the local drug laws.

"He didn't know anything about that. In India, what he'd brought here isn't steroids. It's like medicine. He didn't know that stuff was illegal over here. He's only been here 2 or 3 years. But the law's the law."

Under California law, Singh could be deported or jailed for up to three years, but Hayden argued his client was unlikely to receive jail time, based on a statute known as Proposition 36, which is lenient toward first-time offenders.

"They cannot give you jail," said Hayden. "They give you treatment programs, and at the end of that term, your plea is set aside and you've never had a conviction on your record and the whole thing is expunged.

That's the worst he's probably looking at."

Much of the case hinges on the prescriptions Singh was carrying.

"Are the prescriptions invalid, per se? I don't think that they would be," said Hayden. "I don't know that California has an interest in saying it's not going to honor what a doctor overseas is saying. There are all kinds of reasons why a person would take anabolic steroids."

Arun Venugopal in New York