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'My brother represents all 9/11 backlash victims'

Last updated on: April 30, 2011 10:52 IST

'Sodhi, a Sikh, murdered in Mesa'



After strong protests from the Sikh community, Arizona's Republican Governor Jan Brewer has vetoed a bill that sought to remove the name of Balbir Singh Sodhi, who was murdered four days after the 9/11 attacks, from a memorial panel.

Frank Roque has admitted to killing Sodhi to seek revenge for the attacks of 9/11, as he though the Mesa gas-station owner was an 'Arab'.

A jury sentenced Roque to death in October 2003, but the Arizona Supreme Court commuted his sentence in August 2006 to life without parole after the US Supreme Court ruled it is unconstitutional to execute the mentally ill.

The memorial was inaugurated in 2006. It contained the key phrase, "09 15 01 Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh, murdered in Mesa." 

But Rep John Kavanagh, Republican, who brought the House Bill 2230, sought to remove 11 phrases from the steel memorial at Wesley Bolin Plaza across the street from the State Capitol, which included Sodhi's name. The bill was passed in both houses mostly on party lines.

If the governor had not vetoed it till May 2, the bill would have become a law and Balbir's name would have been removed before the tenth anniversary of 9/11 this September.

Kavanagh, a police officer in New York for two decades till early 2000, also opposed several phrases on the panel and Sodhi's name there. He argued that Sodhi did not die in the 9/11 attack but in a backlash attack later.

Reportage: George Joseph


'Babir was the victim of a madman'

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He considered the 11 phrases in the panel as America bashing.  "Babir was the victim of a madman. He was not a 9/11 victim.  I don't mean to (dismiss) what happened to this individual. I don't mean to trivialise it,' he had said earlier.

But the Sikh community and Sodhi's family members, including his younger brother Rana Sodhi, a hotelier in Mesa, strongly opposed Kavanagh's stance and the issue soon received national attention.

Later, Rana Sodhi and Gururoop Kaur Khalsa, a leader of the Sikh community, met the assemblyman and explained their opposition.

Rep Kavanagh told them that he misunderstood the issue. He apologised to them. He also promised to rewrite the bill in case Governor Jan Brewer signed it into law.

The family and the community welcomed this move.

But a new or amended bill would be possible only in the next session early next year.

"It meant that there would be no memorial panel after the bill was signed in to law till the new law was passed. Moreover, there was no guarantee when the new bill would be passed. So we still wanted the governor to veto the bill," Khalsa said.

She and Sodhi's family met Governor Brewer on Friday over the issue and he agreed to veto it.

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'Our brother represents all 9/11 backlash victims'

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"This is why we love this country. The leadership is responsive. When we met with the governor today and Representative Kavanagh on Tuesday, they each honoured my brother, our family and our Sikh community with caring concern. We humbly requested that they help us so that our brother's part in the local and national 9/11 history would not be denied. Our brother represents all 9/11 backlash victims," said Harjit Singh, another brother of Sodhi.

Rana Singh added, "They honoured us so much. My brother was killed because of the way he looked and our articles of Sikh faith -- his turban -- and in his heart and on his lips were the words, 'Please respect and protect the innocent people.'"

Rana Sodhi said he received overwhelming support for his fight from the Asian community as well as from the mainstream community.

By agreeing to introduce follow-up legislation in January, Kavanagh was admitting the original bill was flawed, Rana Singh Sodhi said.

"I am so comfortable. When I met him, (Kavanagh) he apologised. I have no revenge," Rana Singh told the local media.

Kavanagh said he met with Rana Singh Sodhi, his brother Harjit, and Guru Roop Kaur Khalsa. "I was very much impressed by their respectful, very open and kind attitude," he said.

Because it will take at least a year to raise donations that would pay for new panels, there is plenty of time to introduce a new bill in January to restore Balbir Singh Sodhi's name in the memorial, Kavanagh said.

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'We want him be included within the circle'

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"Kavanagh shared his convictions regarding the bill; he apologised and graciously received Harjit Singh and Rana Singh's open-hearted response and reaction to his actions," Gururoop Khalsa said.

"We clarified the key misconceptions with statement around the bill and explained that it is a monument, not a gravestone. Balbir Singh's murder was in response to 9/11 and there continues to be a backlash reaction," she said.

Kavandah initially proposed a separate area and plaque at the entrance of the monument.

"We shared that we do not want a separate plaque and we want Balbir Singh to still be included, therefore representing all backlash victims within the circle of the tremendous love, support, response, strength of the entire nation, community and leadership; which is what the 9/11 Monument means to us," she said.

She said the Commemorative Monument was created by a highly participatory and bi-partisan commission appointed by then Republican Governor Jane Hull and Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano. The state commission invited private funding for the memorial and chose its design. The inscriptions, which were submitted by the public, were etched into a steel visor that partially circles the memorial.

Balbir Singh Sodhi is survived by his wife Harjinder Kaur, three sons Sukhwinder, Amarjeet and Phuljeet (who all live in Phoenix), and two daughters Satwinder and Maninder (who are married and live in India). His family did not get any compensation after his death.

Billy Shields, a former Phoenix firefighters union leader who was chairman of the memorial commission, said the legislative proposal to change the privately funded memorial was outrageous.

Former Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, whose office prosecuted Roque, said he was appalled by Kavanagh's failure to research the case.

The Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund too requested Governor Jan Brewer to veto HB 2230.

Over 4,500 letters from across the country have been sent directly to the Governor demanding the veto.

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