Sikh plea for tolerance in air security

By Elizabeth Binning

The Sikh community is calling for tolerance and understanding of the religion if changes go ahead with aviation security legislation.

Making a submission from Auckland yesterday, Sikh Centre chairman Verpal Singh said the Sikh community understood and accepted the need for tighter security at airports following the events of 9/11.

Concern was also raised in January about airport security after a group of Sikh priests were able to board an Air New Zealand flight carrying kirpans (ceremonial knives) under their robes.

But it was hoped changes could be implemented in a way sensitive to Sikh people so they weren't unfairly targeted during security checks.

"We don't want this campaign to be aimed at the general public. We don't want to publicise that Sikhs wear a kirpan because that might make us a target," Mr Singh said.

In particular aviation security staff needed to be educated about the Sikh religion so they understood that the kirpan was a religious symbol, not a weapon.

He said Sikhs were happy to stow the kirpan in their luggage but if someone forgot and accidentally walked through a metal detector with one, he should not be automatically treated like a criminal.

He should instead be given the chance to remove the kirpan and place it in his luggage.

Mr Singh said the wearing of a turban was also an important issue that security staff needed to understand.

This practice was a religious requirement as the turban covers the hair - one of the most private and intimate parts of a Sikh.

Removing the turban in full view of other passengers would be the equivalent of being strip-searched in public.

Mr Singh said Sikh passengers should have to remove their turban only if there was a strong suspicion that something was being hidden, not solely because it looked suspicious.

Removing the turban should be done in a private area and the passenger should be given a mirror and enough time to replace it.

A committee is currently hearing submissions on the Aviation Security Legislation Bill, which aims to provide security officers with more powers to search passengers and seize prohibited items.

Air NZ yesterday supported the bill. However, it said it would rather ground a flight than allow it to take off despite a security threat, even if it was carrying a security officer.

The airline was concerned about the implications of the bill requiring it to store seized items for 30 days until they were claimed or destroyed.

It said the items should not be able to be reclaimed and should be destroyed.

The company's chief pilot, David Morgan, said 750kg of items a day were seized.

"Over time the cost involved in trying to repatriate these goods back to passengers would be too expensive."

Captain Morgan put to rest one long-held belief about guns in aircraft - he said a bullet hole in the fuselage would be highly unlikely to cause a "catastrophe".

Auckland Airport management was also concerned about the cost and time impact of the bill, saying it might mean twice the number of screening machines were needed at the airport.

The Aviation Industry Association opposed having armed guards on flights.

- additional reporting: NZPA

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