National Post

Wednesday, February 03, 1999

Child-killer benefits from double standard
She was allowed conjugal visits while other inmates denied

Christie Blatchford
National Post


CTV's W5 / Sarabjit Kaur Minhas, convicted of first-degree murder, is applying for a review of her sentence.


Anees Chaudery

Child-killing doesn't appear to count as family violence in the Canadian prison system.

The National Post has learned that while the Correctional Service of Canada may deny conjugal visits to inmates with a history of relatively minor domestic abuse, or at least order them into counselling first, a conviction for strangling a child to death isn't a roadblock to gaining the popular privilege in jail.

As a result, in a case believed to be the only one of its kind in the country, the federal service approved the private visits for a pair of convicted murderers -- one then serving life at Millhaven Institution, the other at the Prison for Women in Kingston.

The couple now has three children, all conceived behind walls and all five years old or younger.

The government's five-page written "Guidelines concerning family violence" note sternly that "family violence will not be tolerated," speak authoritatively about its many forms, and carefully lay out the risk factors for inmates who have "any present or past conviction for a violent crime against a family member."

But nowhere does it seem the system or any of its bureaucrats gave any consideration to Rajesh Gupta, the little boy with a mop of shining dark hair and a gap-toothed smile who was coolly killed by the woman, Sarabjit Kaur Minhas.

Perhaps it's because technically, the killer and her victim weren't related; the eight-year-old was merely the nephew of Vijay Gupta, the lover who had jilted Minhas to wed another girl of his own Hindu faith. Minhas was then pregnant with his child, scorned, and furious.

Fifteen years ago today, about 8 in the morning, Rajesh set off for his Grade 3 class at William G. Davis Jr. School. It was a 10-minute walk from his parents' home. He never made it; eight hours later, his body was found, tossed atop some garbage bags in a lonely industrial part of Scarborough, the way "you'd toss a coffee cup from the car" as Gord Wilson, the Toronto homicide detective who investigated the case, would later say.

Sgt. Wilson, now retired from the force after 31 years, later arrested and charged Minhas, a woman little Rajesh had met perhaps once or twice in his life.

Among the evidence which tied Minhas to the crime were tiny bits of glass and silver found on the little boy's clothing and which were matched to the remnants of a broken beer bottle which had earlier smashed the rear window of Minhas' Honda, and a chilling, surreptitously taped conversation with her former lover in which she said, ". . . you have given (that) boy for a new bride."

Two years later, Minhas was convicted -- then only the second woman in Canada to be found guilty of first-degree murder, a conviction which was later upheld on appeal -- and given the automatic mandatory sentence, life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years, and which, when uttered in court, has a terrible ring of finality.

It was a fraudulent note, as the family of Rajesh learned last weekend when the National Post revealed that Minhas is applying for judicial review of her sentence under a controversial provision of the Criminal Code which allows murderers to seek a reduction in the period of their parole ineligibility after 15 years in jail. If she succeeds, Minhas could seek parole immediately or at a later date fixed by the jury which hears her application.

What's more, the Guptas have also learned that during her time in the Canadian prison system, Minhas met and married Anees Chaudery, who was released on parole last year after serving 14 years for a second-degree murder of his own (the National Post could not confirm who his victim was), and gave birth to Omar, now five, Nyala, three, and Tehmina, who is two.

While Rajesh's parents have never forgotten the "darling boy" who was their first-born child, they are tortured by the fact that neither his killer nor the system appear even to remember his name -- in a sheaf of documents filed by Minhas' lawyer in Ontario Court last month, the child is only referred to as "the nephew" or as "an eight-year-old child" -- and by the fact that the woman who killed him is now trying to use her own children and her purported dedication as a parent as a lever to freedom.

"This is not jail," Rajesh's father, Steve, told the Post yesterday. "She hasn't been punished." Gord Wilson, who has become a family friend since he investigated the murder, put it even more bluntly: "Where's the retribution [for the crime]? Is prison a breeding zone for convicted killers?"

Prison reports included in Minhas' court file make repeated note of Minhas' "devotion" to and "responsibility" for her children, concluding, "You have managed to bond with them and have every hope for a future as a family unit" -- this despite the fact that they live in Sudbury with a friend and she sees them only once a month for four days.

Even so staunch an advocate for prisoner's rights and rehabilitation as the Elizabeth Fry Society would consider that a demonstration only of a "somewhat limited kind of parenting", says Toronto branch executive director Leslie Kelman, noting that if someone convicted of child murder were later to be caring for a child outside prison, "You would want to make sure there was counselling, and supports in place, for the sake of the children, the woman, and the community."

Once an inmate has "earned" conjugal visits, corrections spokesman Jacques Belanger says, the system makes no attempt to impose any restrictions on the visit, such as birth control. "Whatever they do with the time is their business," he told the Post. "Our jurisdiction ends when a conjugal visit is granted."

Asked how a child-killer could be granted the visits with another killer, especially in view of the special concern for domestic violence, Mr. Belanger said, "I get your point."

Minhas actually has five children in total. A son from an earlier and short-lived arranged marriage was taken into custody by the Children's Aid Society, while her daughter, apparently by the lover who spurned her, lives in the Kingston area with a family.

Her three children by Mr. Chaudery, she wrote in her affidavit, she didn't wish "to lose . . . through adoption", so she enlisted a friend who lives near Sudbury to care for them." Mr. Chaudery, though released, "is not yet in a position to care" for them.

The children were conceived, according to Minhas, in visits either at his prison or at hers. Such visits typically last up to 72 hours, every two months. Minhas was also once transferred to a British Columbia prison so she could "bond and breastfeed" her then newborn son.

Now 37, Minhas says she has always maintained her innocence, and indeed, her case is now part of The Innocence Project, a collaboration of the Osgoode Hall law school and the Association in Defence of the Wrongfully Convicted. Law professor Alan Young is handling the case, and says he will soon try to obtain the complete Toronto Police file in order to demonstrate her innocence.

Today, Steve Gupta and his wife will go to their temple to pray for their child, who at the time he was killed, was wearing a watch which played Old Macdonald Had A Farm.

In addition to the daughter who was just two when Rajesh was killed, the Guptas have since had three more children.

Only one of them is a boy. He is now eight, as old as the brother he never knew got to be. He looks exactly like Rajesh.

Christie Blatchford can be contacted at cblatchford@nationalpost.com

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