LONDON/ONTARIO: Leading pro-Khalistan group Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) has won the first round of a major defamation case at the Superior Court of Ontario, Canada against the veteran CBC journalist Terry Milewski and conservative leaning public policy think tank Macdonald-Laurier Institute (MLI) over allegations that the SFJ and its Khalistan Referendum campaign was a project run, controlled, funded, influenced and financed by Pakistan.
Terry Milewski - the author of the report “Khalistan: A Project of Pakistan” - and Macdonald-Laurier Institute (MLI) - the publisher of the anti-Kahlistan report - had attempted to get the defamation case of SFJ dismissed by the Superior Court of Ontario but the presiding judge Justice William Black, after reviewing the extensive evidence, ruled that the claim of defamation brought by the SFJ will be allowed to proceed to a trial and ordered the defendants Terry and MLI to pay to the SFJ the cost for the legal fee.
The ruling by Justice William Black means the defamation claim will be allowed to proceed to trial unless the plaintiff SFJ and the defendants Terry-MLI reach a settlement.
The case by SFJ goes back to the publication of the controversial report published on September 9, 2020 by Terry Milewski and the MLI titled, “Khalistan: A Project of Pakistan”.
The report contended that the SFJ was influenced or controlled by Pakistan; that its referendum campaign was being driven by Pakistan; that the SFJ does not actually represent the Sikh people; that it serves Pakistan and speaks for Pakistan; and finally, that Pakistan is SFJ’s patron and sets limits on its campaign.
The 24-page report was jubilantly celebrated and widely circulated by the Indian media and diplomatic missions abroad.
The report was used by the Indian media and Indian missions who projected in their writings that a Pakistan intelligence agency was involved in backing the SFJ and its Khalistan Referendum campaign.
The SFJ filed a defamation lawsuit against Terry and MLI claiming that the allegations of SFJ-Pakistan nexus, Pakistan’s funding and influence are totally baseless, false and without evidence and have caused serious damage to the SFJ’s reputation as human rights NGO, working for the cause of self-determination for the Sikh people and the creation of an independent homeland, Khalistan in the Indian region of Punjab.
In the defamation lawsuit, the SFJ asked for retraction, apology and damages amounting to $1,000,000.00; special damages for damage to its goodwill amounting to $500,000.00; aggravated damages amounting to $500,000.00; a permanent injunction restraining the defendants or any person acting on behalf of the defendants, or any of them, from publishing, posting, or reposting the libel complained of or other communications defamatory of the plaintiff.
Rejecting the SFJ’s offer to settle the case by retracting and apologising, the defendants instead filed what is called anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) motion to get the SFJ’s lawsuit dismissed at the very initial stage on the basis of public debate, fair comment and freedom of press.
The Ontario Court, while ruling in favour of the pro-Khalistan group, SFJ, held that the defendants could not establish responsible communication on the matters of public interest, because they failed to conduct due diligence. The court further held that the defense of “fair comment” is also not available to the defendants Terry and MLI in this case, because the words used in the allegations against the SFJ are factual in nature and not commentary and in alternative, they are not supported by the facts. In short, the court ruled that the lawsuit is a legitimate defamation action brought in circumstances, where the Sikhs for Justice, a non-violent organisation advocating for Sikh’s self-determination, should have the right to pursue a remedy.
On cross-examination, Milewski conceded a lack of evidence in support of the key facts. Milewski conceded that he does not know whether Pakistan is involved in any way in the SFJ’s referendum campaign.
Milewski said he has no evidence to suggest the SFJ is financially supported by Pakistan and that he has no evidence of any organisational involvement between Pakistan and the SFJ.
The Canadian author conceded that he does not know if Pakistan is involved or has any influence on the SFJ’s Khalistan Referendum campaign.
The article had alleged that American lawyer Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, who leads the Sikhs for Justice, had “undying solidarity with Pakistan”. In the court’s cross-examination, Milewski accepted the fact that Pakistan and the SFJ may share a common interest (in opposing India) but it does not mean that one entity is influencing the other.
Milewski also conceded that he was aware of other communications between Pannun and the SFJ, in which the SFJ has been harshly critical of Pakistan, as well as a recent dispute between the SFJ and Pakistan, neither of which was mentioned in the report as it would go against the bias of the report.
Some of the false statements in the report alleged, “It’s Pakistanis, not Khalistanis, who are driving the campaign”; “it’s clear who’s really driving the Khalistan bus: Pakistan”; the SFJ has “undying solidarity with Pakistan” ; “extremists animated by Pakistan seek to distort the history and betray the vast majority of Sikhs who live in peace and freedom”; the SFJ does not “speak for the Sikh community; the evidence, instead, suggests that they speak for Pakistan”; and that Pakistan is the SFJ’s “patron” and “sets the limits” on the campaign.
In the court, Milewski had attempted to argue that his report presented his “opinion” rather than “facts” but Justice Black recognised that Milewski’s public tweets defended the article as factual and this was inconsistent with his position on the motion.
Milewski also attempted to argue the defence of “responsible communication” but Justice Black found that a trial judge may reject this defence on the basis of lack of diligence by Milewski who did not even contact the Sikhs For Justice for comment before publishing the false statements making accusations of Pakistan funding for the Sikh group without any evidence.
The Canadian Court’s ruling in favour of the SFJ came just days before the group kickstarted on October 31 from London, UK, the voting in its groundbreaking innovative initiative of holding the first-ever global referendum on the question of Khalistan. Over 30,000 Sikhs from around London showed up to vote on the opening day of Khalistan Referendum in London, which prompted Indian PM Modi to leave behind other issues and instead raise the SFJ-Khalistan Referendum issue with his British counterpart during their brief meeting at the COP26.
The SFJ has been banned by India since 2019 on account of running a secessionist referendum campaign, however, the group continues to operate unrestricted in western democracies, where freedom to express, through peaceful means such as holding a referendum, a dissenting political opinion is considered sacred and inviolable.
The glaring examples of such freedoms include: UK, despite Indian requests, allowed Khalistan Referendum activities, including October 31 voting on Khalistan in a government-managed conference centre; the then Canadian PM Harper stated on record that Khalistan is a political opinion, with which many may not agree but the Canadian Sikhs have right to peacefully advocate for Khalistan; and US Department of State spokesperson’s statement that the freedom of speech is a bedrock of principle of the American Constitution and democracy, while responding to a question by an Indian journalist that how come America is allowing the SFJ and its Khalistan Referendum activities inimical to India’s territorial integrity to take place from the US soil.
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