Indian police accused of harassing Sikh activist in UK before his sudden death

A Sikh activist in Birmingham complained that Indian police were verbally harassing him by phone and threatening his family in Punjab months before his sudden death in June, a Guardian investigation has found.

The death of Avtar Singh Khanda, which family and friends have said was suspicious, coincided with a plot that was playing out across the Atlantic where, US prosecutors have alleged, an Indian government official with close ties to Indian intelligence was ordering the murder of high-profile Sikh activists in Canada and the US.

British authorities have said Khanda’s death in June, four days after he was admitted to Birmingham’s Sandwell hospital feeling unwell and in pain, was the subject of a “thorough review” by police and that there was no reason to suspect foul play.

Officially, Khanda is said to have died of acute myeloid leukaemia, treatment of which was complicated by blood clots, two days after he was diagnosed with the aggressive blood cancer.

But exclusive interviews with friends and family of the activist contradict official statements – including by Foreign Office ministers – that the death was investigated by West Midlands police. They have also revealed that Khanda was considered a close associate by Indian officials of Amritpal Singh, a one-time fugitive Sikh separatist who is considered a terrorist by Indian authorities and has since been arrested. His family staunchly deny any connection between the men.

In Birmingham, associates of Khanda’s claim that West Midlands police did not take statements from friends and family after his death, did not speak to his employers or work colleagues, did not retrace his steps on the days before his sudden illness, did not visit his residence or study threats made against him, and did not issue a case number, which would indicate the matter had been investigated.

When the Guardian asked about those concerns, the West Midlands force appeared to distance itself from its original statement to the press, when it said the matter had been “thoroughly” investigated. In a new statement, the force said the matter had been referred from the coroner and it was “satisfied that there are no suspicious circumstances”.

A 20 June letter from the Birmingham coroner’s office to Khanda’s next of kin, which has been seen by the Guardian, said there was “no reason to suspect an unnatural death” based on medical information and “confirmation from West Midlands police that there are no suspicious circumstances surrounding the death”.

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For his friends, fellow Sikh activists and family members, the insistence by British authorities that a deeper investigation is not warranted fails to take into account damning details that have emerged about India’s alleged involvement in a global campaign of transnational repression aimed at Sikh separatists calling for the establishment of an independent Sikh state, known as Khalistan. It is a movement with which Khanda was closely associated, they say.

The US Department of Justice unsealed an indictment last week that included allegations that an unnamed Indian government official had directed the assassination of a US citizen – the New York-based lawyer and Sikh activist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun – because of his political activism. The plot was foiled after the intervention of an undercover informant, and the indictment appeared to confirm earlier explosive allegations by the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, that India was behind the assassination of another activist, Hardeep Singh Nijjar.

Neither the DoJ nor the UK government have commented on whether Khanda’s case deserved more scrutiny after the latest revelations. A report published last week in the Print in India suggested that the UK had expelled an Indian intelligence officer from Britain earlier this year, in part because of perceived meddling by India in Sikh exile politics. The Foreign Office did not respond to a request for comment.

Khanda, who had appeared to be healthy and robust in the weeks before his death, died in Birmingham on 15 June. Three days later, Nijjar was killed in a hail of gunfire in British Columbia as he left his house of worship. No arrests have been made in the case.

According to the US indictment, an Indian official (referred to as CC-1) sent a picture of Nijjar’s bloody body to an Indian national named Nikhil Gupta, who is alleged to have hired and paid a hitman to kill Pannun. Gupta, who was arrested in the Czech Republic in June and is being extradited back to the US, told an undercover police officer who was posing as the hitman at the time that Nijjar had also been a “target” and that “we have so many targets”.

Exclusive interviews with Khanda’s mother and sister in India suggest the 35-year-old and his family were the subject of an aggressive intimidation campaign by Indian authorities in the months before his death.

Bibi Chranjit Kaur, Khanda’s mother, said authorities came to her house in Moga, Punjab, in April and told her she was under investigation. In a subsequent interview with the police, Kaur was asked questions about her son’s alleged relationship with Singh, and was told her bank accounts were being scoured for information.

“They repeatedly asked about Avtar: what was he doing in the UK, what were his affiliations?” she said. They then threatened to arrest her daughter, Jaspreet Kaur.

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Three days later, after arriving at her mother’s house, Jaspreet and Kaur were taken to a police station, where their phones were confiscated, and they both faced three days of questioning by the authorities. A police car was stationed outside their home 24 hours a day, Jaspreet said.

“In the police station, they would separate me from my mother and take me into a quiet room. They would put my phone on the table and they would connect a call with Avtar in the UK and instruct me to tell my brother that I was on my own and ask him to confide in me: that the police were harassing me but I had found a room to myself and could he tell me where is Amritpal Singh hiding and can he give any details,” she said.

“During the questioning they would call Avtar from my phone and speak directly to him, making threats, saying that ‘we’ve got your sister here, where is Amritpal? We know that you know.’ Avtar’s response would always be the same: that he had never met Amritpal and had no idea where he was and could the police please stop harassing his family who have nothing to do with this, there’s nothing they or I can give you.”

Michael Polak, a lawyer representing Khanda’s family, said Khanda began receiving threats against his life after a separate incident in which he was “wrongly implicated” in the removal of the Indian flag during a protest at the London high commission on 19 March.

In a video posted on his personal Facebook page in April, Khanda complained about the police’s treatment of his family.

“Police have been harassing me for the last four days. I am getting calls after calls from different police stations and they say the same thing again and again and again, and that is ‘where is Amritpal Singh?’,” he said in the video.

Jas Singh, a close associate of Khanda’s and an adviser to the Sikh Federation in the UK, said it was clear at the time that India was seeking to demonise Khanda.

“If you had asked anyone in April or May about who was India’s biggest target, Avtar would have been on that list,” he told the Guardian.

Months later, Khanda would be admitted to hospital and, one day later, diagnosed as having a probable case of leukaemia. He died two days later.

The Indian embassy in Washington DC did not respond to a request for comment.