Tara Singh Hayer and the 'incentive to kill'

Murdered journalists don't always make global headlines. When a government is suspected of the crime, it's big news. When it's some squalid band of criminals? Not so much.

Twenty years ago, a journalist's death helped push Canada's biggest terrorism case into a ditch

A man looks for the name of a victim at a new memorial for Air India Flight 182 Thursday, June 23, 2011 in Montreal. Canadians experienced the worst terrorist attack in the country's history when a bomb on Air India Flight 182 killed all 329 passengers and crew members aboard, most of them Canadian. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Murdered journalists don't always make global headlines. When a government is suspected of the crime, it's big news. When it's some squalid band of criminals? Not so much.

For the victims' families, though, the difference between losing a loved one to government assassins or to ordinary thugs is really no difference at all.

Canada's annual time of remembrance may be over for most of us, but not for the Hayers. Each year, a week after Remembrance Day, they mark the life and death of Tara Singh Hayer, shot dead in his garage on Nov. 18, 1998.

Tara Singh Hayer receiving the Order of B.C. in 1995. (CBC)

When the bullets hit him, Hayer, the publisher of a Punjabi-language newspaper in Surrey, B.C., was struggling to get out of his specially-designed car and into his wheelchair. He'd been disabled by a previous murder attempt 10 years earlier.

This weekend, the 20th anniversary of his death arrives with the crime still officially unsolved. Nobody's paid a penalty for it. His family's anger still seems fresh.

'An incentive to kill the witness'

As Hayer's son Dave sees it, Canada's justice system allowed his father's killers to achieve their purpose. He said he's still appalled by the fact that, during the Air India trial — which ended in acquittals in 2005 — the elder Hayer's account of what he called a confession by one of the accused was ruled inadmissible as evidence.

A former B.C. Liberal MLA who's now retired from politics, Dave Hayer argues Canada's laws "protect the criminal, not the victim." In his father's case, he said, prosecutors told him the court had to protect the accused's right to cross-examine witnesses against them.

"It's an incentive to kill the witness," said Dave Hayer. "Kill the witness to get rid of the evidence."

Legal experts say it's more complicated than that. Evidence from a witness who has since died may be admitted in a trial in the right circumstances. In Tara Singh Hayer's case, it wasn't. The judge said it "would be a highly contentious matter consuming many months and with the potential of significantly diverting the trial."

That decision left Hayer's death squarely at the centre of the tangled, unresolved story of Canada's worst-ever mass murder: the 1985 bombing of Air India's Flight 182.

A target on his back

The killing of Hayer, publisher of the Indo-Canadian Times, was dubbed "an assassination" by the RCMP immediately after it was discovered. They knew that Hayer had been shot before — in 1988, soon after writing in his paper about hearing a confession linked to the Air India bombing.

Hayer had told the RCMP that, while visiting a friend in London, England, months after the bombing, he overheard another visiting Canadian, Ajaib Singh Bagri, describing how the bomb was smuggled onto Flight 182.

An excerpt from Hayer's statement to the RCMP. (CBC)

Tara Hayer's account was consistent with other evidence about the placing of the bomb. He swore an affidavit, which was made public but not used as evidence, repeated his account on videotape and indicated he was willing to testify.

But he also outed the alleged conspirators publicly — and recklessly — in angry editorials, calling the bombers "demons." Doing so painted a target on his back.

Four months before the first shooting in 1988, Hayer first named Bagri in print: "If you remember the Air India flight that blew up in midair," he told his readers, "the police connected to this could be keeping an eye on Bagri ..." Then, in his July edition, he referred to "Talwinder Singh (Parmar) and Bagri having a hand in this ..."

Parmar and Bagri were both B.C. residents pushing for an independent Sikh state. Hayer agreed with their goal, but opposed attacks on civilians.

A door from the Air India jumbo jet floats off the Irish coast. (Associated Press)

Then, in August of 1988, his reports became more specific: "In 1985 in England, Bagri was talking noisily about his involvement in the blowing up of the Air India airplane ..." A week after that was published, the first gunman arrived and put Hayer in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

'If I don't speak, I can't ask anybody else to risk it'

Hayer's accounts to the RCMP were much more detailed — but his editorials must have sent shockwaves through the conspiracy. He received multiple death threats. Even before the 1988 shooting, a bomb had been discovered at his newspaper office. His family pleaded with Hayer to be more careful. His son told the Air India Inquiry in 2007 that their appeals were futile.

Dave Hayer recalled telling his father, "Let somebody else, because we already risked enough." But the elder Hayer wouldn't back down.

"Millions of people in the first World War and the Second World War paid heavily to have this freedom and democracy and your right to speak, especially a country like Canada," the son recalls his father saying. "If I don't speak, I can't ask anybody else to risk it."

The cameras died first

The risks were aggravated by what Justice John Major's inquiry described as a feeble effort by the police to protect their witness. Hayer wasn't the only one to suffer from this but, as Major put it in his 2010 report, "nowhere are the RCMP's failures to protect its potential witnesses more dramatic than in relation to Tara Singh Hayer.

"Hayer's family testified as to the difficulty in getting the RCMP to take threats against Hayer seriously, even after two attempts had been made on his life."

When Hayer was finally killed, the surveillance cameras placed by the police saw nothing. They hadn't been working for months. Nobody fixed them and the family was never even told that they were useless.

And that was only one among many embarrassing law enforcement stumbles in the Air India investigation, a debacle marked by erased wiretaps, warnings that went ignored, interagency turf wars and witnesses scared into silence.

The murder of Tara Hayer — a journalist killed for what he wrote — remains, officially, a mystery, although one suspect is already in prison for a different killing.

Bagri and his co-accused at the Air India trial were acquitted. Only the bomb-maker, Inderjit Reyat, was convicted. He was released from prison last year and Talwinder Parmar — named by the Air India inquiry as the leader of the plot — fled the country and was killed by the Indian police in 1992.

For the courts and the police, it's all history now. Dave Hayer said he's enjoying being a grandfather, but he still thinks of his father "every day."

About the Author

Terry Milewski

Terry Milewski worked in 50 countries during 38 years with the CBC. He was the CBC's first Middle East Bureau Chief, spent eight years in Washington during the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations and was based in Vancouver for 14 years before returning to Ottawa as senior correspondent.