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Mistaken for Muslims, Sikhs hit by hate crimes

Police said two Sikh men who were shot, one fatally, in Sacramento may have been targeted because they were wearing turbans.
Image: Harvinder Singh comforts his daughter, Navi Kaur, during a news conference discussing the murder of his father, Surinder Singh
Harvinder Singh comforts his daughter, Navi Kaur, during a news conference discussing the murder of his father, Surinder Singh, held in West Sacramento, Calif., Monday.Rich Pedroncelli / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The daily stroll had become routine for two elderly Sikh men in a Sacramento suburb, as well as for neighbors and friends accustomed to seeing the men walk by with their long beards and turbans.

But the traditional headwear might have singled them out late last week when they were gunned down, one fatally, in what police are investigating as a suspected hate crime.

On Monday, local religious leaders pleaded for the community to come forward with leads but also said they will not be deterred by violence.

"Our community will continue to wear our turbans proudly," said Navi Kaur, the granddaughter of Surinder Singh, 65, who died from his wounds.

His friend, 78-year-old Gurmej Atwal, remains in critical condition.

They were walking through their neighborhood in Elk Grove, just south of the California state capital Sacramento, Friday afternoon when someone in what witnesses described as a pickup truck opened fire.

Police said they have no suspects nor any indication the shooting was a hate crime, but said the turbans could have made the elderly men a target of extremists.

During a news conference Monday at a Sikh temple, a spokesman said the recent violence has scared some temple-goers into concealing any indicators of their religion.

Sikhs often are mistaken for Muslims and have been the subject of occasional violence across the country since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"The enemies of the United States don't wear turbans in the United States," said Amar Shergill, a Sikh leader and attorney. "They don't want to be singled out. The result is that Sikh Americans since 9-11 have borne the brunt of violent hate crimes."

Sikhs draw particular attention because of their traditional beards and turbans, which are mistakenly associated with Islamist terrorists.

'It is getting ugly'
Shergill said Monday also marked the start of a trial involving a confirmed hate crime against a Sikh.

He is the attorney for a Sikh cab driver beaten four months ago by passengers who shouted anti-Islamic slurs at him in West Sacramento, which sits across the Sacramento River from the state capital. The two defendants pleaded no contest Monday to felony assault.

As the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks approaches, several people at Monday's news conference drew links between the Sacramento-area crimes and national and international developments.

From unrest in North Africa to congressional hearings on radicalization of Muslims in the U.S., speakers warned of an increasingly hostile climate.

"It is getting ugly," said Basim Elkarra, executive director of the Sacramento Valley chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "And like I said, who suffers the most is the Sikh community because of unfortunately people's ignorance."

The Elk Grove police department said last week's shooting would be the first targeting Sikhs in the city if it turns out to be a hate crime.

Police also said they would meet with FBI officials, a routine move when a hate crime is suspected.

On Monday, police said they are looking for a tan or beige Ford F150 pickup truck made between 1999 and 2003.

Meanwhile, a dozen groups have collected nearly $30,000 in reward money for information about the shootings.

Singh, a truck driver, had worked in India and Libya before moving to the United States about five years ago, The Sacramento Bee reported.

Atwal, the other victim, is a retired civil servant who worked in the revenue department of northwest India's Punjab state before moving to the U.S. in 2001.

The two were neighbors who became friends when Singh moved to Elk Grove three years ago. They would have tea in the morning, set out for a walk, return for lunch, and then go out again.

They knew just enough English to say, "Hi," to passersby and met other retired Sikhs at a nearby park.

"They were total gentlemen," said Lakhvinder Singh, a family friend.