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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Hate-crime charge filed in attack on Sikh cab driver

As a Sikh, Sukhvir Singh says he has encountered racial harassment before, but he never feared it could lead to his death.

But on Saturday, police say, the Orange Cab driver withstood a violent attack from a drunken passenger who punched him, bit off a piece of his scalp, called Singh an "Iraqi terrorist" and threatened to kill him. The attack ended after a Metro bus pulled up to the cab and a passenger called 911.

Luis Vázquez, a 20-year-old construction worker from Kent, was charged Tuesday with third-degree assault and one count of malicious harassment, the state's hate-crime law. If convicted, Vázquez faces up to a year in jail, according to a spokesman for the King County Prosecutor's Office.

After the attack, Singh was treated at Harborview Medical Center and released. He was later admitted to Valley Medical Center in Renton and remains hospitalized because of kidney problems. He said it's unclear whether the problems are a result of the attack.

Speaking from his hospital bed Tuesday, Singh said it is difficult to talk about the attack, but he is grateful for the outpouring of support from the community.

"I live here, and I love America. I love to serve my community and my people here," said Singh, of Kent, a father of two. "It's very hard to think about."

Singh was stopping at a Montlake neighborhood grocery to grab dinner Saturday before 8 p.m. when Seattle police escorted an obviously drunken man to his cab, said the cabdriver's attorney, Hardeep Rekhi. Singh, a cabdriver for seven years, said it's not uncommon for police to place intoxicated people in his cab so they can be driven home.

Authorities say the passenger was Vázquez. They said he had been kicked out of the Apple Cup football game at Husky Stadium.

While Singh was driving Vázquez home, Vázquez started calling him a terrorist and threatened to kill him, according to court charging documents. Singh said he worried for his life and the lives of other motorists as he drove down Interstate 5 at 60 mph.

Singh pulled over just south of the exit for Interstate 90, according to charging papers.

Vázquez followed Singh as he left the cab and continued the attack, court papers said. It was only when a Metro bus pulled up and Vázquez tried to board that the attack stopped, according to charging papers.

Vázquez later told investigators that he was afraid of Singh because Vázquez "had a buddy in Iraq," according to charging papers. Singh isn't Iraqi. He's an Indian-born member of the Sikh religion, which claims up to a half-million followers in the U.S.

Because the case appears to be a hate crime, the FBI has launched a civil-rights inquiry, said spokeswoman Robbie Burroughs. The facts gathered by agents will be sent to the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., and if attorneys there think more information is necessary, the FBI will launch a full-blown investigation, Burroughs said. [Link]

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