An Indian, who had claimed to have been set ablaze by assailants here, had faked the incident for seeking insurance benefits to overcome his financial woes, Australian police alleged on Wednesday.
Jaspreet Singh, 29, of Essendon area in the city’s north, who reported the attack on January 8 after sustaining 15 per cent burn injuries, has been charged with making a false report to police with a view to gaining financial advantage.
At an out-of-sessions hearing, police said Mr. Singh had purchased an opaque plastic container and filled it with nearly 16 litres of petrol a day before he torched his seven-year old car to claim insurance money, Sky News TV said.
The container and other evidence were found at his home when he was arrested on Tuesday, they said before the bail justice.
“Police inquiries have led us to believe that Mr. Singh is in some financial difficulty and that he intended to sell his car but instead stood to gain $9,750 from an insurance claim out of this particular incident,” Detective Senior Constable Danielle O’Keefe told the hearing.
Mr. Singh, who is in Australia on his wife’s student visa, had told the police that he was doused with petrol by some thugs and set alight as he parked his car near his home.
Mr. Singh was taken to the Alfred hospital with burns to his face, arms and hands.
According to Mr. Singh’s account, he and his wife left a dinner party in Essendon between 1.30 and 2 a.m. and drove to their nearby home in Grice Crescent. He dropped his wife home and had gone to park his car when he was attacked.
Mr. Singh claimed that as he was getting out of the car, four men attacked him, pushing him back against the vehicle and poured an unknown fluid on him. One of the men then ignited the fluid with a lighter before all the attackers fled.
Mr. O’Keefe said Mr. Singh suffered the burns while trying to torch his 2003 Ford Futura. She said arson chemists and hospital staff concluded that the damage to the car, Mr. Singh’s clothes and his injuries were not consistent with his story.
“Police had obtained security footage depicting Mr. Singh buying a 15-litre opaque plastic container and 15.96 litres of petrol on the day before the attack,” Mr. O’Keefe said.
However, Mr. Singh has denied the allegations. His wife has also been questioned about her knowledge of the incident.
The January 8 incident came amid a spate of violent incidents against Indians, many of them students, in Australia in recent months.
Over 100 cases of attacks on Indians have been reported since the last year in Australia and the issue has been taken up by top representatives of the Indian government with their Australian counterparts.
Burns were still obvious on Mr. Singh’s face and neck as he appeared in the court, and he wore pressure bandages on arms.
Through an interpreter, he told the hearing that he and his wife planned a holiday to India, leaving on February 20 and returning in late April to visit his child and family.
Mr. O’Keefe said that while police did not oppose bail it had been noted that Mr. Singh was a potential flight risk.
He was granted bail with strict conditions banning him from contacting witnesses and attending points of international departure. He must report to police thrice a week and surrender his passport. He will appear before the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court on March 15.
At the time of the incident, police Detective Acting Senior Sergeant Neil Smyth had described it as “a bit strange” and said there was no evidence it was racially motivated.
Victorian Premier John Brumby was miffed at the Indian media and officials for what he called unbalanced reporting on Mr. Singh’s case. Mr. Brumby said Indian media reports of such incidents had been unbalanced, according to AAP.
“I think I’ll make a couple of comments and in a sense they go, as much as anything, to the way the Indian media and, to a lesser extent, some representatives in the Indian government, portray these events,” he said.
On the killing of Ranjodh Singh, whose body was found in a charred condition, in New South Wales, he pointed out that the accused were Indians.
“I think the point needs to be made that the people who have been charged with that murder are both Indians... And we’ve had this case [Jaspreet] which attracted a lot of attention in India and police have charged an individual with setting fire to himself.”
“So I hope that there is some balance to the debate, some balance to the reporting in India and certainly to date that balance hasn’t been there,” he said.
New Delhi Special Correspondent reports:
Australian High Commissioner Peter Varghese urged “caution” against taking initial media reports at “face value.” Mr. Varghese’s observations come a day after External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna alleged that Indians were being singled out for attacks in Australia and advised Canberra to undertake some introspection on the reason for violence against Indians.
“The charging of an Indian national in Australia for making a false report again demonstrated how wrong initial media reporting can be… The incident, in which Jaspreet Singh claimed to have been set alight near his home in Melbourne, was carried around the world as a racist attack. It had done serious damage to Australia’s image in India. It had fuelled the view that Indians had been singled out for racist attacks in Australia,” he added.
Mr Varghese said that the arrest of Jaspreet Singh, together with the arrest on 29 January of three Indian nationals for the murder of Ranjodh Singh, should be a lesson to all not to cry racism every time something bad happened to an Indian national in Australia.
Mr. Varghese said that both cases had been widely reported in the Indian media as racist attacks. He hoped that those which carried such reports would now set the record straight. He called on the media to allow the system of police investigation and criminal justice to run their course and pointed out that over 50 people had been arrested in cases involving Indian nationals.