National Post

Saturday, January 30, 1999

When a murderer gets all the perks
Woman who killed eight-year-old boy wants early release

Christie Blatchford
National Post

How sharper than a serpent's tooth is an ungrateful inmate: The second woman in Canada to be convicted of first-degree murder, and who has had by any measure a charmed ride through the federal prison system, now wants out -- 10 years early.

Sarabjit Kaur Minhas, who strangled an eight-year-old boy to death in 1982, was convicted of the crime almost exactly 15 years ago and given a mandatory sentence of life in prison with no parole for 25 years.

But the 37-year-old Indian-born woman has applied for what's called "judicial review" -- a special hearing to have that automatic period of parole ineligibility reduced under Section 745 of the Criminal Code of Canada. If she succeeds, she would then be free to apply for parole.

Minhas' affidavit, filed in Ontario Court earlier this month, reveals her as a woman who has had every imaginable break and opportunity since being convicted of the murder of Rajesh Gupta, the nephew of the lover who had jilted her and whose body was dumped atop garbage bags near a Scarborough factory.

Astonishingly, not once in her application or the supporting documents is the name of the dead child even mentioned.

Since being sentenced on Feb. 8, 1984, Minhas has: Met and married another convicted murderer; had four children while in jail (three by her current husband, who was paroled himself last year, and one by Rajesh's uncle, the lover who married someone else); earned a university degree and attended her graduation at Queen's University in Kingston; been given all manner of privileges and cushy jobs outside prison walls and won a special transfer to a British Columbia facility so she could "breastfeed and bond" with her then-newborn son.

And though Minhas is apparently a darling of the system, and considered a model prisoner at low risk to re-offend or escape, prison psychologist Dr. Fred Tobin noted dryly in an assessment report prepared last year after a two-hour interview with her, "There is a sense of entitlement in this woman."

At the start of the interview, Dr. Tobin wrote, Minhas's "assertion crossed the boundary into importunance. She felt obligated to instruct me as to what I needed to include within her assessment." He went on to point out that her only misconduct while incarcerated "relates to episodes in which she experienced that her rightful needs were not attended."

That didn't happen very darned often; virtually every special privilege Minhas -- who has changed one or another of her names three times while in jail, and is now known as Amina Chaudhary -- sought, she got.

As a child murderer, she was immediately placed in protective custody for her own safety at the Prison for Women in Kingston, but, as she wrote in her affidavit, "I found this to be a very restrictive form of confinement and when I felt that I could no longer cope with the isolation, I asked to be admitted to the general population."

Once there in 1987, she blossomed, and within three years, her security level was reduced to minimum, and she applied for transfer to a residential-type house outside the walls of the prison; that request, the only one it appears she was ever refused, was denied only because there weren't beds available.

As a consolation prize, she was allowed to visit her oldest child, her daughter Puja by the lover who had scorned her, at the house -- "a much nicer and more relaxed atmosphere," as her case management officer wrote at the time.

In 1989, Minhas married Anees Chaudhary, a 35-year-old who was convicted of second-degree murder on March 3, 1984, and who was then incarcerated at Millhaven Institution in Kingston. Chaudhary was released on full parole last year. It's unclear how they could have met; the only reference in the documents says they began corresponding.

The two participated in the "private family visiting program" -- the system's euphemism for conjugal visits -- either at Millhaven or the Prison for Women, with predictable results: Minhas gave birth to three children, Omar in 1993, Nyala in 1995, and Tehmina in 1997.

It was when she was pregnant with Omar that Minhas was obligingly moved, at her own request, to the Burnaby Correctional Centre in Burnaby, B.C., where she stayed for five months in the "open living unit," in order, as a 1993 psychological report noted, to "provide nurturance, bonding and the benefits of breast-feeding" for the baby. It appears she made no such requests for the later births of her daughters.

In between babies, Minhas upgraded her education to Grade 13 equivalency, worked in the prison school as a tutor and in the beauty parlor, began to take university courses toward her B.A. and worked for a year outside the prison as a clerk in the Correctional Service of Canada. She is now employed as a library clerk at the correctional staff college, earning $3.25 an hour, and enrolled in an honour's B.A. program at Queen's in women's studies.

Because of her life sentence, Minhas is eligible only for escorted temporary absence passes and has had a plethora of them -- to attend her graduation, to go to work, and once, a 36-hour pass to take her then-newborn daughter to the home of the caregiver she'd arranged.

In June of last year, the National Parole Board granted her 22 hours a month of escorted absences -- six hours for "family contact;" eight hours a month for religious purposes (she converted to the Islamic religion before marrying Chaudhary); and eight hours to study at the Queen's library.

Ironically, Minhas appears to be considered an excellent parent.

In a curiously worded decision dated June 12 last year, a panel of the parole board wrote: "In spite of the time you have spent away from them (the children) and the distances involved, you have managed to bond with them and have every hope for a future as a family unit. . . . The Board notes how seriously you have taken your parental responsibilities for many years."

Minhas' eldest child, Puja, lives near the prison with a family.

The other three live with a friend near Sudbury.

Her husband, Pinhas says in her affidavit, "is not yet in a position to care for our children full time," though he visits her and the children at the prison.

For the past two years, Minhas has lived at Isabel MacNeil House, a 13-bed "converted stone residence" outside the prison whose only security provision is doors locked at night.

Though Minhas -- one of only 16 women in Canada who have been convicted of first-degree murder since capital punishment was abolished in 1976 -- says she has consistently maintained she is innocent of the little boy's death, the Ontario Court of Appeal dismissed her appeal in 1986.

Jurors at her trial deliberated for less than three hours before accepting the Crown's contention that she had strangled Rajesh to get even with Steve Gupta, the boy's uncle, who had left her in Toronto, bitter and pregnant with his child, to return to India, where his parents had a bride for him.

At the time, Minhas was a Sikh, and because Mr. Gupta was a Hindu, the lovers met secretly during their tumultuous affair in motels and at secluded spots throughout Toronto. It was at one of these locations, a dead-end street in the north end of Scarborough, where Rajesh's body was spotted by a truck driver.

Minhas' case is one of those adopted by "the Innocence Project," a collaboration of law students at Osgoode Hall and the Association in the Defence of the Wrongly Convicted.

Law professor Alan Young said yesterday the group will soon apply to have Minhas' entire police file made available to bring forth new evidence demonstRating oneer innocence.

Newspaper clippings from 1984 quote Minhas, shortly before her conviction, telling a local reporter, "They won't convict me. I didn't do it." Then, the reporter wrote, she smiled and said, "Anyway, I have to get married and have more babies."

Christie Blatchford can be contacted at cblatchford@nationalpost.com

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