IN DEPTH: AIR INDIA|
The Bombing of Air India Flight 182
CBC News Online | September 25, 2006
On March 16, 2005, a B.C. Supreme Court judge acquitted Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri on eight charges related to the bombing of Air India Flight 182 on June 22, 1985. It was Canada's worst mass murder - 329 people were killed. Two baggage handlers at Tokyo's Narita Airport died in another connected bombing.
The investigation and prosecution of the accused have been the costliest in Canadian history, estimated at about $130 million.
An inquiry into the bombing of Air India 182 — how it occurred, why the law has failed to find those responsible and whether in could happen again — began on June 21, 2006. The first three hearings were held on July 18, 19 and 20. The inquiry began hearing evidence on Sept. 25, starting with the relatives of some victims.
It all started more than 20 years ago.
June 22, 1985. Airline agent Jeanne Bakermans checks in two pieces of luggage at Vancouver International Airport that will change the course of history.
Ajaib Singh Bagri [left] (CP Photo/Chuck Stoody) and Ripudaman Singh Malik (CP Photo/Richard Lam)
Hours later, the first suitcase explodes inside the baggage terminal at Tokyo's Narita Airport while being transferred to an Air India flight. Two baggage handlers are killed. Exactly 55 minutes later, the other bag, a dark-brown hard-sided Samsonite suitcase, explodes in the forward cargo hold of Air India Flight 182 as it approaches the coast of Ireland.
Some passengers actually survive the 747's fall from 31,000 feet only to die in the frigid waters of the Atlantic.
The attack kills 329 people, including 82 children. Among the victims are 280 Canadian citizens, mostly born in India or of Indian descent.
Anant Anantaraman lost his wife and two daughters in the Air India tragedy. Both his little girls, he says, were very talented violinists. For years after the crash Anant found it impossible to listen to music. Each June he marks the anniversary of their death ... and each June he hopes the nation will remember this was not a foreign tragedy ... most of the victims were Canadians.
"I want the public to remember these people," Anantaraman told CBC News.
"I would like to see Canadians understand that this is not a local tragedy, it's not a tragedy that happened to me and a few people. I want them to understand it's a national tragedy, which has never been sort of resolved."
Anant gave up on the promises of Canadian police to bring those responsible to justice. In 1998, he said, the RCMP told him that charges were imminent.
Mourners gather on the coast of Ireland to pay their respects to Air India victims.
Nothing happened publicly in the two years after that. But the investigation picked up steam behind the scenes. Crown prosecutors were brought on board to begin reviewing the 15 years worth of evidence gathered by police. Soon a team of 14 prosecutors and 20 police officers was at work on the case full time.
As the investigation headed into the home stretch, police left nothing to chance. They refused to publicly discuss either their theory or possible suspects in the case. Their caution could have stemmed from the fact there was a widespread belief that the investigation the longest, most complicated and expensive in Canadian history had been botched from the very beginning.
That's because Canadian authorities were on to the suspects in this case long before the crime was ever committed.
Sikh militants tailed
In early 1985, Rajiv Gandhi prime minister of India at the time was getting ready to visit North America. India asked Canada and the United States to keep close tabs on Sikh militants who might pose a security threat. Many Sikhs around the world were furious over the Indian government's 1984 assault on the Golden Temple at Amritsar, Sikhism's holiest shrine. Brian Mulroney Canada's prime minister at the time agreed to India's request.
Security officials placed a British Columbia man named Talwinder Singh Parmar under around-the-clock surveillance. Parmar was the leader of the militant Babbar Khalsa sect, a group committed to the violent establishment of Khalistan, an independent Sikh homeland, in the Indian state of Punjab. Agents followed Parmar's every move and tapped his phones.
Talwinder Singh Parmar
Three weeks before the Air India bombing, agents followed Parmar and another man, Inderjit Singh Reyat, into the woods on Vancouver Island. There was a loud bang. But the agents thought little of it. Later, most of Parmar's taped telephone conversations were erased before anyone ever listened to them.
Two days before the bombings, police say a man of East Indian descent went to the Canadian Pacific Airlines ticket office in downtown Vancouver. He paid cash for two tickets. Both were registered under the last name "Singh." One ticket was booked to go to Narita Airport in Tokyo and then on to India. The other ticket was booked from Vancouver to connect with Air India Flight 182 out of Toronto.
Police believe that man was working with Parmar and a group of others. But in one of the biggest gaffes of the case, there was no surveillance on Parmar the day police believe the bombs were delivered to Vancouver airport.
In the aftermath of the bombings, the pressure was on to lay charges fast.
Within a few months, RCMP officers raided the homes of a half-dozen prominent Sikhs in British Columbia. Charges were laid against two men: Talwinder Singh Parmar and Inderjit Singh Reyat, the mechanic Parmar had visited on Vancouver Island. They were charged with minor weapons offences, but the police left no doubt as to why these suspects were being charged. They told a news conference that the raids and arrests were made as part of the investigation into the Narita Airport blast and the downing of Air India Flight 182.
The police, however, had acted prematurely. The charges against Parmar were dropped. Reyat was fined $2,000 and released. In exchange for that little piece of justice, the police had shown their hand to their key suspects in the case.
Reyat refuses to co-operate
For the next 15 years, the Air India investigation languished. The most police were able to manage was the 1991 conviction of Inderjit Singh Reyat in the Narita bombing case. Police presented evidence linking components of the bomb remains found in Tokyo with items Reyat had purchased in the preceding weeks. Among them, a Sanyo stereo tuner that police believe housed the Narita bomb.
Reyat served 10 years for manslaughter in the deaths of the two baggage handlers at the Tokyo airport. He insisted he was innocent.
Inderjit Singh Reyat
"I never deny buying some items," Reyat told CBC News. "I bought the tuner, right, and gave it to someone else. I don't know what happened after that. But I did not make the bomb, or know of anybody who asked me to make a bomb."
Reyat himself was able to provide one of the most interesting glimpses inside the police investigation: police had always hoped to lay conspiracy charges against everyone involved in the Air India bombing. The best way to do that is with the co-operation of one of the conspirators.
Reyat said he was offered $1 million for his testimony. That's the amount of the reward police have offered for information leading to convictions in the case.
In October 2000, charges were laid against Sikh cleric Ajaib Singh Bagri and millionaire businessman Ripudaman Singh Malik. Bagri, from Kamloops, B.C., and Malik, from Vancouver, were charged with murder, attempted murder and conspiracy.
Then on June 4, 2001, the British government agreed to allow Canadian authorities to charge Inderjit Singh Reyat in connection with the bombing. As a British citizen already extradited to Canada for his trial on the Narita charges, Britain had to agree before these further charges could go ahead.
After the British courts approved a waiver of extradition rights, the RCMP formally arrested Reyat on seven new charges including, murder, attempted murder, conspiracy in the Air India bombing, and the explosion at Tokyo's Narita Airport.
The trial and its problems
The trial faced one setback after another. The RCMP's key suspect Talwinder Singh Parmar died in 1992 under suspicious circumstances, the result of an alleged gun battle with Indian police. Problems with Reyat's defence team forced the trial to be postponed twice.
It took months before Reyat appointed a lawyer. David Martin finally came on in September 2001. A few months later, the presiding judge postponed the trial from February 2002 to the following November in order to include Reyat's trial with Malik's and Bagri's.
In May 2002, the trial was postponed to March 2003 after most of the lawyers on Reyat's defence team resigned because of alleged fraudulent billing by Reyat's children. Two of Reyat's adult children had been employed to do clerical work on the case.
Shortly after the resignations, Reyat's former defence lawyer, Gibbons, took over as lead lawyer. Gibbons defended Reyat at his 1991 trial for manslaughter in the deaths of two Japanese baggage handlers killed by a bomb at the Narita Airport.
Then on Feb. 10, 2003, in a dramatic turn of events, Reyat changed his story. He pleaded guilty to one count of manslaughter and a charge of aiding in the construction of a bomb. All other charges against him including the murder of 329 people were stayed and he was sentenced to five years in jail for his role.
On April 28, 2003, the trial of Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri began. The testimony, presentation of evidence and arguments lasted until Dec. 3, 2004, just over 19 months.
Crown prosecutors presented their case, saying Malik and Bagri were members of an organization now considered a terrorist group by Ottawa, and presenting witnesses who testified to their involvement in the bombings. Defence lawyers argued their clients had nothing to do with the bombings and said the Crown's witnesses were unreliable.
In the end, the judge ruled that the Crown’s case was too weak and he acquitted Malik and Bagri of all charges.
Relatives of those killed in the bombings expressed their outrage and renewed their calls for a public inquiry. The federal government asked former Ontario premier Bob Rae to study that matter and advise whether that demand should be met.
On Nov. 23, 2005, Rae recommended a "focused, policy-based inquiry" that looks at four areas:
» Bob Rae's report [in pdf format]
- Whether the assessment of Sikh terrorism was adequate in light of available information.
- Whether the RCMP and CSIS co-operated adequately in the investigation.
- The relationship between intelligence gathered and evidence presented at trial.
- Any breaches of airport security and if those issues have been addressed.
On May 1, 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper called the Commission of Inquiry into the Investigation of the Bombing of Air India Flight 182 and named retired Supreme Court Justice John Major as its head.
"This inquiry is not a matter of reprisal, nor is it intended to go back over the criminal trial," he said. "It is about finding answers to several key questions about the worst mass murder in Canadian history."
|BY THE NUMBERS|
329: people killed, 82 of them children|
$130 million: estimated cost of the investigation and prosecution of the accused
$7 million: cost of building a high-security courtroom for the trial
$460,000: paid by the RCMP to a controversial witness called "John" in return for his testimony
115: witnesses testified at the trial
19 months: of testimony
3 weeks: for the Crown to complete its closing arguments
150 hours: of taped conversations with Sikh informants destroyed by former CSIS agent who feared Mounties would fail to protect identities of informants
15 years: between the 1985 explosion and the laying of charges in 2000
31,000 feet: distance passengers fell to the Atlantic Ocean after their plane exploded