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Fiji-Indian latest victim of hate crime in US

July 18, 2007 14:46 IST

On July 5 doctors at the Mercy San Juan Medical Center near Sacramento, California, decided to end a four-day vigil and remove the patient from life support.

At 4.55 pm that day, Satendar Singh, 29, went from being a young Fiji-Indian who won a visa to the United States via the immigration lottery and landed in that country full of hope to the latest entry in the roster of hate crimes fuelled by homophobia.

Media reports in India-West and elsewhere indicate that four days earlier, Singh was enjoying a pre-July 4 picnic with six other friends of Fijian and Indian extraction at Lake Natoma, when a group of Russians nearby began directing what eyewitnesses described as racist and homophobic slurs at Singh.

The youngster, who had secured employment with the local AT&T call center and who, contrary to religious prescription, wore neither turban nor beard, took it for a while, then responded that he wasn't gay.

Another member of the group told the Russians they had come to enjoy the day and were not looking for a fight.

The abuse stopped; the friends went back to enjoying the day, dancing to Indian music and generally having themselves a good time. It resumed, however, around 8, when the friends began packing up.

No one is quite clear what the trigger was, but at one point one of the Russians came over and hit Singh in the face; eyewitnesses claim that a `knuckleduster' was used in the assault.

Singh fell, hitting his head on the concrete pavement; his assailant meanwhile ran away.

Bystanders called for the police; an ambulance arrived 15 minutes later and Singh was taken to the medical center ten miles from Sacramento.

Park rangers meanwhile arrived on the scene, made a report and forwarded it to the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department. Officials there confirm that investigations are on, but no arrest has been made yet.

Officials also said the charge will be murder; if there is credible evidence that racial and/or homophobic abuse was directed at the victim, it could be upgraded to the status of a hate crime.

The American River Parkway Safety Coalition has offered a reward of $1000 for information leading to the arrest of the attackers.

Singh, meanwhile, was in a coma when he arrived at the hospital; Indian American neurosurgeon Dr Tushar Goradia led the team treating him, but after four days, was forced to give up.

His body will, after the formal coroner's examination, be flown to Fiji, where his parents and members of his extended family are based.

Hindu American Foundation president Dr Mihir Meghani, in a statement forwarded to media outlets, said the group is working with other South Asian activists and groups to fashion a response to the incident.

The crime, meanwhile, has created waves in the blogosphere, and found echoes in ongoing campaigns for the Democratic nomination for the Presidential elections of 2008.

Elizabeth Edwards, wife of 2004 Vice-Presidential candidate John Edwards, told a meeting of the Human Rights Campaign in California last weekend that her husband, if elected president, would ensure the repeal of over a thousand laws that discriminate against same-sex couples.

She used the Satender Singh tragedy to highlight what she called the Bush Administration's homophobic bent, and announced that she personally was in favor of gay marriage -- a position divergent from that of her husband, who is against gay marriage but backs civil unions for same sex couples.

Bloggers, meanwhile, are pointing at an anomaly in the laws, that they feel highlights the current climate of homophobia in the Republican Administration. They point out that if the sheriff's department were to ask for federal help in cracking the crime, they will get it only if it is deemed that the abuse was racist.

If, however, the abuse and subsequent attack were fuelled by homophobia, existing laws prevent federal agencies from coming to the aid of local authorities.

The Rediff News Bureau