In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, donations and federal funds poured into New York City, including millions of dollars sent to the medical examiner's office to help identify the remains of the nearly 3,000 people killed that day. At least $10 million of that cash, though, never made it to help as intended. That's because a medical examiner's employee, Natarajan Venkataram, conspired to steal it through a web of shadow companies.
Nowadays, Venkataram is serving a 15-year term at the Federal Correctional Institution, near Zoo Miami. And he says he's been the target of religious discrimination — because the prison won't serve him vegetarian meals.
It's easy to scoff at that kind of complaint — which Venkataram filed in a lawsuit last week in federal court — and New York papers have already had a field day. But Venkataram's attorney says it's no laughing matter. His client is Hindu, and forcing him to regularly eat meals that contain meat violates U.S. laws.
"It's not a very complicated issue," Krishnan Chittur, his New York-based attorney, tells New Times. "People who are used to eating meat just don't understand how offensive it is to be fed nonvegetarian stuff when you've been vegetarian your whole life. I've seen people literally puke."
As he notes in his lawsuit, Venkataram, as a practicing Hindu, can eat only dairy and vegetables that haven't been in contact with meat. A judge in 2006 ordered the prison to meet his religious dietary needs, he says, but the facility discontinued that option.
Instead, in the Miami facility, he's routinely served so-called vegetarian options that contain meat. Chittur says his client has been served what's been called vegetable soup and found beef floating in the broth. In other instances, vegetables were clearly prepared in meat broths or equipment that cooked meat.
Chittur says the fix would be easy. "The way I look at it, it would be cheaper for them to serve him vegetarian food," he says. "They just need to be willing to provide it."
The attorney says he knows his client committed a serious crime; Venkataram pleaded guilty in 2007 and has repaid more than $7 million (though the government continues to search for the rest). But that's not a fair reason not to accommodate his religious beliefs, he argues.
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"It is a serious issue," he says. "His religion has nothing to do with what my client did to end up in prison."
The government has yet to file a response to the lawsuit.
(H/T Random Pixels)