In a setback to the Centre’s case against Khalistan separatist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, the Interpol has rejected India’s second request to issue a Red Corner Notice on terror charges against the Canada-based founder and legal advisor of pro-Khalistan outfit Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), stating that Indian authorities failed to provide sufficient information to support their case, The Indian Express has learnt.
Sources said the Interpol also flagged that UAPA, under which the red corner was asked for, has been criticised for being “misused” to target minority groups and rights activists without “respecting” their right to due process and a fair trial.
The sources, however, said Interpol acknowledged that Pannun is a “high-profile Sikh separatist” and that SFJ is a group that calls for an independent Khalistan. Yet, they said, it concluded that Pannun’s activities have a “clear political dimension”, which cannot be the subject of a Red Corner Notice according to Interpol’s Constitution.
The Indian Express has learnt that the Commission for the Control of Interpol’s Files conveyed its decision to India in August after ruling on an application filed by Pannun on India’s request and after evaluating the response from Indian authorities.
During a session held in June-end, sources said, the Commission concluded that “insufficient information” has been provided by India’s National Central Bureau (NCB) to show the “terrorist nature of the crime” and Pannun’s “possible active and meaningful involvement in terrorist activities”.
The NCB functions under the CBI, and processes and coordinates Red Corner Notice requests for Indian law enforcement agencies. In Pannun’s case, the request for a Red Corner Notice was made on May 21, 2021, by the NCB on behalf of the National Investigation Agency (NIA). The SJF has been banned by India.
The Indian Express asked the NIA about the Interpol move but the agency spokesperson was unavailable for comment.
In its submission to the Interpol Commission on Pannun’s application, sources said, India cited an arrest warrant issued against Pannun by a Special NIA Court in Mohali on February 3, 2021. Detailing the case, it stated that the NIA’s investigation “established” that Pannun “recruited”, “radicalised” and “tasked” other accused through an associate identified as Nihal Singh alias Fateh Singh on social media platforms to carry out “terror acts”, sources said.
According to sources, India told the Commission that these acts included “killing of prominent Indian leaders, burning of business installations, procuring weapons for carrying out terror acts” and “recruitment” in their “terror gang”. These acts, India is learnt to have submitted, were “funded from abroad” by Pannun “through his proxies” by various modes of money transfer.
Pannun’s goal, India stated, was to “revive terrorism in Punjab” and “kill innocent people” to promote a “secessionist” agenda.
In his application to the Commission, Pannun rejected the charges and described India’s request as a move to “silence activists”, sources said. He also denied that SFJ was a terrorist organisation and claimed that his legal practice was for promoting “self-determination” for Sikhs, and filing complaints in the US and Canada on behalf of “victims regarding human rights abuses”, sources said.
In this context, they said, Pannun submitted that he had filed separate civil claims in New York in September 2013 against Congress president Sonia Gandhi and then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, claiming that “damages” were caused by the “commission of crimes against humanity and other abuses in Punjab”.
The Commission’s decision, sources said, is based on a key point: Article 3 in the Interpol Constitution, which forbids the organisation from undertaking “any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character”. The Interpol had in January 2019 rejected a previous request for a Red Corner Notice against Pannun from Indian authorities in November 2018.
This time, it pointed to several shortcomings in the Indian request, mainly lack of information on three counts: alleged links between Pannun and Fateh Singh or other accused in the NIA case; Pannun’s bank details or alleged international wire transfers; his involvement in alleged terror acts.
The Commission also pointed out that Pannun has been declared a “terrorist” under the UAPA without a conviction. Pannun is listed by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) as one of 38 “terrorists” under the UAPA.
On UAPA, the Commission cited open letters by UN experts saying that “UAPA’s vague definition of ‘unlawful activities’ and ‘membership of terrorist organisations’ confers discretionary powers upon state agencies, which weakens judicial oversight and diminishes civil liberties in the process”.
According to sources, the NIA has filed three at least charge sheets against Pannun and SFJ, with the charges including damaging the Tricolour and hoisting the “Khalistan flag” on the premises of the Deputy Commissioner’s office in Punjab’s Moga in August 2020.
In July 2019, the MHA declared SFJ as an “unlawful association” for “indulging in activities, which are prejudicial to internal security of India and public order, and have the potential of disrupting peace, the unity and integrity of the country”.
According to the Interpol website, Red Corner Notices have been issued to 279 persons on requests from Indian law enforcement agencies, including 200 Indian citizens. They include gangster Dawood Ibrahim and some Sikh separatists.
Apart from cases in Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Delhi, Pannun faces at least 22 cases in Punjab alone, some of which were taken by the NIA.
On April 15, the Gurgaon police in Haryana registered an FIR against Pannun on charges of sedition after he allegedly released a video asking people to raise the “Khalistan flag” at the offices of Deputy Commissioners and Superintendents of Police in the state.
On May 8, a fresh case under UAPA was registered against Pannun in Himachal Pradesh for allegedly masterminding the tying of a pro-Khalistan banner on the boundary of the Vidhan Sabha in Dharamshala and similar incidents in the state — and declaring June 6, 2022, as “Khalistan Referendum Day”.
At the time, Himachal DGP Sanjay Kundau said he had sought a Red Corner Notice against Pannun.