New Zealand
IN COLD BLOOD: CCTV grab of the three masked men who robbed Navtej Singh’s liquor store.

Gunned Down Under

The cold blooded murder of an Indian store owner and the callous behaviour of the police reveal the gloomy prospects of, and dreadful working conditions faced by, small business owners in New Zealand

— By Rakesh K. Simha in Auckland

In a country hardened to reports of violent crime, where five days out of seven the evening bulletins flash news about stabbings, shootings and hit and runs, murders don’t have shock value in New Zealand any more. But last month’s fatal shooting of Indian liquor storeowner Navtej Singh shook this nation of four million people to the core.

At about 9pm on Saturday, June 7, three men wearing masks entered Riverton Liquor in south Auckland armed with a .22 calibre rifle and confronted Navtej and co-owner Gurwinder Singh. The gunmen grabbed $4000 in cash, crates of beer, liquor and telephone cards from the counter. And despite both owners cooperating and raising their hands in the air, one of the attackers pointed the gun at Navtej and shot him in the chest. As the 30-year-old slumped to the floor, the robbers fled the scene in two getaway cars at high speed.

The CCTV footage that caught the public’s imagination showed police hanging back for nearly 40 minutes before entering Riverton Liquor, as almost a dozen locals wandered in and out of the store, one man even leaving cash on the counter for a purchase. Meanwhile the mortally wounded Singh, surrounded by his wife, his business partner and another family friend, vomitted blood on the floor.

Lying in his wife’s arms, the father of three young children kept asking when the ambulance would arrive. As Navtej staggered to the bathroom to vomit blood, Gurwinder called 111 again, to be told the “paramedics are just a minute away”.

It turned out to be the longest minute in the authorities’ lexicon. The ambulance and police had arrived and were in sight of Riverton Liquor, and Navtej, lying inside in a pool of blood, could even hear their sirens, but the police held back the medics, citing procedure that after an armed robbery officers have to wait at a “safe point” until the gunman’s whereabouts has been established.

Even as they were waiting to enter the store, up to 12 people came and went from it without incident. Gurwinder phoned again and told 111 that the gunmen had fled and that an injured Navtej lay dying.

Finally, when the medics and police entered the store, 40 minutes after receiving the call, Navtej’s wound proved to be fatal. He died in hospital, leaving behind a young family and dependant parents back in India.

Some dairy owners are disenchanted with the police response in general. While there seems little point picking up the phone to report the routine racist abuse, shoplifting and threatening behaviour from customers, a shooting is an entirely different matter. “The police are not human, what’s the point in turning up after the man bled to death while the cops wait like cowards outside,” said one storeowner.

Faced with criticism from all corners, the police launched a massive manhunt and apprehended the killers under two days. Seven men were arrested from within the Manurewa suburb that Navtej lived in.

However, a double tragedy struck the dead man’s family when Harjinder Kaur’s grandfather, who was living in Auckland, died after learning about the shooting.

Navtej and Gurwinder had worked together for three years at a Papakura liquor store, before they decided to go into business together and bought Riverton Liquor in February. Navtej paid for his half with proceeds from the sale of his father’s land in India. He and Gurwinder took second jobs as mail sorters for New Zealand Post, starting at 5.30am, knocking off at 9am, and working in the bottle store till 11pm. The long hours and the care they put into their displays paid off, and they increased the business’s turnover by 50%.
LIFE CUT SHORT: Harjinder Kaur and Navtej Singh in happier times REMORSELESS: Anitelea Chan Kee, 20, who pulled the trigger, being produced in court.

It’s profitable work for those willing to put in the punishing hours, but it comes with dangers. Singh’s murder was just the latest fatal attack on Indian dairy and liquor store workers in recent years. In January, 22-year- old Krishna Naidu was stabbed to death in his father’s Manurewa superette.

Navtej came to New Zealand from Punjab with his wife seven years ago. He liked gardening, but mostly spending time with his family, said the family friend. Before he bought the store, he holidayed with his wife and three daughters, knowing he would have less time to devote to them once the business was up and running. He was strongly connected to his Sikh culture.

However, members of the Sikh community are clearly upset with their leaders for not doing enough for the dead man’s family. They say despite having considerable pull with the government, they have not called for an open investigation into the reasons behind the inordinate delay in the police’s action.

Crime Wave

Saturday, June 7: Navtej Singh, 30, is shot dead.
Wednesday, June 11: Yang Yin Ping, 80, is killed in her Manurewa home by an unknown robber.
Friday, June 14: A topless bar in the same suburb as Navtej’s store is robbed at gunpoint.
Monday, June 16: Joanne Wang, 39, is crushed to death by a vehicle as she protests over her handbag being stolen.
Wednesday, June 18: A jewellery store in Remuera’s Auckland’s poshest suburb, is robbed by a man armed with a heavy torch.

While Navtej’s dream lies shattered, Manukau city councillor Daniel Newman says he believes the murder will be the catalyst to act on the problem of suburban alcohol suppliers in South Auckland.

Manurewa MP George Hawkins hopes to introduce a bill on an amendment to the Sale of Liquor Act, which would require the social impact of liquor licences to be considered before they are granted, and allow a wider range of people to object. “I’ve drawn up this bill to shut the stable door,” he said.

Both men are also concerned at the violence directed at dairy and liquor store owners throughout South Auckland, who Newman says have become “stationary targets”.

Perhaps it is this devious subculture that the authorities will target after Navtej’s murder.

July 2008

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