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Monday, April 14, 2008

Turban Warfare

A Hoboken woman who tried to pull a turban off a Sikh man's head this past winter is being charged with harassment, a charge that some in the Sikh community say does not fit the crime.

Hansdip Singh Bindra, 38, of Union City, alleges that Carrie Covello, 37, of Hoboken, tried to pull his turban off when they were both at the Madison Bar and Grill on Jan. 30.

Covello was kicked out of the Madison and Hoboken police arrested and charged her with a bias attack. However, the Hudson County Prosecutor's Office downgraded the charge last week to lesser charge of harassment.

"We are very disappointed. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Sikhs have been disproportionately subject to bias incidents and hate crimes, violent ones at times," said Harsimran Kaur, staff attorney for the Sikh Coalition, a national organization headquartered in New York. "So obviously the fact that she was targeting his turban is clear evidence that she had a problem with his religion."

Sikhism is a separate religion from Islam, and Sikhs weren't involved in the 9/11 attacks. Nevertheless, some people mistakenly accuse Sikh men - who typically wear turbans and have beards - of being affiliated with Muslim terrorists.

Debra Simon, deputy first assistant prosecutor who handles all bias cases in Hudson County, said she downgraded the charge because there was not enough evidence to prove that Covello meant to intimidate Bindra, one of the statutes of a bias crime.

Bindra told The Jersey Journal that after Covello allegedly grabbed his turban, he turned to her and asked, "Do you have a problem?" And he said Covello replied "Take it off, I don't like it."

However Simon said, based on reading police interviews, some bar patrons who witnessed the event did not see any conversation exchanged between Bindra and Covello.

"She didn't say 'Terrorist go home,' she didn't say 'We don't like your kind,'" Simon said. "There has to be a finding that the conduct by the perpetrator was designed and intended to intimidate. I downgraded it to a harassment charge because you can't run around pulling on people's clothing even if it's not a religious article."

Kaur disagrees.

"If you burn a cross on an African-American's yard, you are not specifically saying something degrading, but everyone knows that's targeting them," said Kaur. "When people target a turban, it rises to that same level of hostility and hatred. For the prosecutor to not understand that means there is a lack of cultural understanding that we are working to rectify in this country."

A bias charge is a more serious allegation and would be heard before a Hudson County superior judge and could carry up to 18 months of jail time. A charge of harassment is a municipal offense that threatens up to six months in jail. However, if this is Covello's first offense, she would most likely receive probation under either charge, Simon said. [Link]

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