Judge throws out Sikh holy man libel action

Hardeep Singh: "I am delighted and relieved with Mr Justice Eady's ruling which brings an end to a b

Journalist and broadcaster Hardeep Singh has seen off a libel action brought by an Indian holy man who he claimed was an imposter.

His Holiness Sant Baba Jeet Singh Ji Maharaj, who since 2002 has been head of Nirmal Kutia Johal - a religious institution which follows the teachings of the Nirmal Sikh faith - had complained about an article which appeared in The Sikh Times in August 2007.

He alleged that it meant among other things that he was the leader of a cult and an impostor, had disturbed the peace in the Sikh community of High Wycombe, and promoted blasphemy and the sexual exploitation and abuse of women.

Singh, denied libel, pleading justification, fair comment and qualified privilege. His counsel Mark Hill QC told Mr Justice Eady in London that the trial due to start today could not proceed as any finding would necessarily require the court to enter into issues of doctrine, tradition and practice of the Sikh religion which was contrary to established legal authority.

"The key point is that the claimant's purported appointment to the post in the Sikh religion which he claims to hold is irregular."

Agreeing that the action would have to be "stayed", the judge said it did appear that issues of a religious or doctrinal nature permeated the proceedings.

"The issue of whether he is or is not fairly described as an impostor cannot be resolved without reference to Sikh doctrine."

He refused permission to appeal although an application can be renewed before the Court of Appeal. Hardeep Singh said: "I am delighted and relieved with Mr Justice Eady's ruling which brings an end to a bitter three year struggle by myself and my family to defend my right to free speech in Britain."

He added: "This exhausting battle to clear my name has cost me in excess of £90,000 and yet it took Justice Eady only three hours to throw out the case.

"It seems Jeet Singh hoped I would be forced to back out of the case as the costs mounted which begs the question should freedom of speech in this country only be available to the rich who have means to defend themselves in court?

"Ultimately, our libel laws need urgent reform, not only to protect British journalists but also to prevent our laws being abused by foreign nationals."

Dominc Ponsford is editor of the Press Gazette.

Dominic Ponsford is editor of Press Gazette

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