News that long-time Brampton journalist Baltej Pannu had been arrested in India brought the GTA’s Punjabi-Canadian community out to a massive protest Saturday demanding his safe release.
More than 3,000 people filled the Canadian Convention Centre in Brampton, responding to a Facebook post and news articles in India’s papers that detailed Pannu’s arrest in Punjab on Thursday, on charges related to sexual exploitation and intimidation.
Supporters say the Punjab state government is trying to silence Pannu, a fierce critic, and want Ottawa and India’s federal government to intervene.
“He’s an outspoken journalist and he has taken on the Punjabi government,” said Ontario NDP Deputy Leader Jagmeet Singh, who attended. “We are questioning the legitimacy of these charges. It is a strategy that is often used to silence dissidents.”
Pannu, a Canadian citizen, lived in Brampton for 25 years, working as a social justice reporter and radio host before moving to Punjab with his wife about five years ago, friends said. He has a son who lives in Vancouver. A similar rally is scheduled for Sunday in Surrey, B.C.
In Punjab, Pannu hosts radio shows that air internationally, including regular spots in the GTA, said friend and broadcasting colleague Ravinder Singh. He’s also involved in a Punjab organization that helps children with disabilities, Singh said.
Supporters said Pannu is known for his outspoken allegations of corruption in Punjab, where Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, his son and two brothers-in-law hold key positions of power. They say Pannu has claimed the ruling party has close links to drug traffickers and organized crime.
“His wife contacted me and said police in civilian clothing blocked his car,” said broadcasting friend Singh. “They took him to the police station. They said he would be released in an hour or two, but then they told her he was being charged.”
Details remain unclear. According to the Hindustan Times, the allegations were lodged by a local activist involved in an organization helping disabled children. The Times online reported that she told police Pannu sexually exploited her “by making false promises.” She also alleged Pannu threatened to “malign her image if she failed to do his bidding.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has plans to meet with India’s Narendra Modi on Sunday night ahead of the climate change talks in Paris.