SURREY — Jaspal Atwal is “completely overwhelmed” by the international media attention he’s received after an invite that sparked international controversy during Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s trip to India last month.
That’s according to a statement he made to media ahead of a tense press conference this morning in Vancouver where his lawyer Rishi Gill answered questions on his behalf and bickered with some members of the media over the format.
Atwal, who was convicted of trying to assassinate an Indian cabinet minister on Vancouver Island in 1986, was invited to a Canadian government reception in India.
Reading from a prepared statement, Atwal expressed his remorse for his crime and told reporters he was “completely shocked and devastated” when his presence made headlines.
“I’m sorry for the embarrassment this matter has caused to Canada, India, my community, and family and friends,” he said. “I want to again stress this terrible event that happened in the past is something I live with every day and I take complete responsibility for.”
Atwal said the invitation to the reception in India materialized after he reached out to Surrey MP Randeep Sarai to see if there was a possibility of attending the reception, and was “eventually provided an invitation by the Canadian ambassador and attended the reception.”
Atwal’s lawyer, Gill, told reporters he is “politically engaged” and has attended functions with Trudeau before he was prime minister, and possibly afterward. He also added that Atwal had been the guest of MPs on Parliament Hill in 2013 and “on one occasion” in 2014.
Atwal said he has been photographed with many politicians of all parties.
“The only relationship that Mr. Atwal has, that he’s here to advise anybody of today… is that he has facilitated radio interviews because he’s involved in the media,” said Gill.
As for his relationship with Sarai, Gill said there is “nothing more than Mr. Atwal and Mr. Sarai being part of the same community. Mr. Atwal is involved in politics and he knows Mr. Sarai on that basis…. They’re friends in the sense that they’re friendly. I wouldn’t at all categorize them as being buddies.”
Atwal poses ‘no security threat’
Reading from his statement, Atwal said he “deserved the punishment he received” for his crime and has done his best to “become someone who contributes to Canada and the Indian community.”
He said, “almost 40 years ago I, like many other Sikhs became caught up in a movement supporting an independent Sikh nation. While nothing can excuse my conduct, I can only say that during that time in the early 1980s I reacted to the Indian Army storming the Golden Temple in Amritsar in a way that has caused much pain to many individuals…. What I did was described as an act of terror by the judge who dealt with this matter. I accept full responsibility. I do not disagree with the court’s conclusions.”
Atwal, who is now almost 63, said, “I’m a husband, father and grandfather. I, again, renounce any form of terrorism. I do not advocate, in any sense, for an independent Sikh nation.”
Gill said Atwal poses “no security threat to this country or any other country” but acknowledged the “discomfort” for politicians who appear in pictures with him.
In the case of the Indian reception, Gill said Atwal “assumed he was vetted appropriately” and was removed from the Indian government’s “black list” last year.
Atwal said he entered India “lawfully” and “with full permission of the Indian government,” including two trips to India in 2017.
“An Indian national, a state politician, was almost killed by Mr. Atwal,” Gill told reporters. “He doesn’t deny that. India has let him back into the country to visit.”
Gill noted India provided Atwal with three visas in 2017.
“One was a visa for one month, he had to reapply in the summer time of last year… he was then given a one-year visa late in the year. Now if India has no problem with him attending, given the concern, and security officials that have been reported in the media have been quoted as saying he doesn’t pose a threat, he was a political embarrassment apparently to the prime minster, and that’s obviously accepted. With that said, the fact that he was not approached (by security officials) did not surprise him but if there are further measures that need to be taken that’s up to the government.
“There was no, at any point, illegal entry on the part of Mr. Atwal to India. At no point,” stated Gill.
Gill said Atwal is “here today to say that he got in the middle of this. He’s a contributing member of society and he wants to get on with things.”
Media should move on, Gill says
At the press conference, things got heated between Gill and a reporter, when a question was directed to Atwal about whether he would vote for Trudeau.
Gill was asked why he’d hold a press conference if Atwal wouldn’t answer questions.
“What occurred is that on three separate occasions at least, I explained to the press… that Mr. Atwal is not the most sophisticated speaker in any sense…. He felt that he wanted to get his story across that I could take the questions as his counsel, as he has every right to do,” said Gill.
“I made it very clear, and don’t interrupt me until I finish this… that if anybody has an issue with that, and that was the clear wording, that they should advise me now. I didn’t hear a peep from you and that’s completely unethical quite frankly, and you should really consider your position further. Now do you have any other questions?”
Gill said there’s a secondary issue at play in this news story and that is “an obsession with some members of the media, particular members, with a struggle between militants who cause great violence from the Sikh community in India and here, and the Indian government, that occurred, I’m 51 this year and that occurred when I was in Grade 10. That was in the ’80s. People have to move past things.”
According to Gill, “any respected member of the Punjabi community, the South Asian community, anybody except the same usual suspects that a lot of reporters will go to and quite frankly, generally not South Asian members, South Asians will tell you it isn’t anywhere near a concern that it was almost four decades ago, OK?… This type of hysteria when they call Mr. Atwal a terrorist, even today? You can say he committed an act of terror, he admits that, but to say now as a reporter said a few weeks ago… that he should somehow be on the no-fly list for an event that occurred, that was horrible, again, almost four decades ago.
Surrey Centre MP Sarai has apologized after admitting his office facilitated the controversial invite. While Sarai has stepped down as Liberal Caucus Chair, he said he won’t resign his seat as MP.