Mon, Dec 06, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Air India bombing case nears end

20 YEARS ON The case that has tried two orthodox Sikhs for the bombing that killed 329 people has now wrapped up, but relatives are calling for a public inquiry

AFP , VANCOUVER, CANADA

Nearly 20 years after their loved ones died in the worst terror strike prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, relatives of 329 people killed in an Air India jet bombing are at last in sight of justice.

Two orthodox Sikhs will learn in March whether they will be found guilty of the 1985 outrage. Their trial ended Friday after sapping millions of dollars from Canadian coffers.

Justice Ian Bruce Josephson, who heard the case without a jury, will rule on March 16.

That will be nearly two decades after suitcase bombs, which allegedly originated in western Canada, killed two baggage handlers in Japan and 329 passengers on Air India Flight 182 off the Irish coast.

Even before the verdict is pronounced, relatives of the 331 victims are calling for a public inquiry.

Earlier calls for an official probe were stymied by the criminal investigation, and eventual trial of Ajaib Singh Bagri and Ripudaman Singh Malik. The two accused, immigrants from Punjab, were each charged with eight charges of murder and conspiracy.

The massive case was the largest and most complex in Canadian history, with 18 months of pre-trial hearings, numerous related court hearings and a 19-month trial involving 113 witnesses and millions of documents.

The trial itself took place behind bullet-resistant glass in a specially-built underground bunker of a courtroom in this west coast city.

Prosecutors said Bagri and Malik were religious Sikh fundamentalists who used violence to achieve their political goals.

Their motive in the bombings, said prosecution spokesman Geoffrey Gaul, was to avenge India's 1984 attack on the Golden Temple in Amritsar, and fight for an independent Sikh homeland to be called Khalistan.

Prosecutors say two suitcase bombs were checked onto planes leaving Vancouver, connecting with Air India flights to London and Bangkok and New Delhi.

On June 23, 1985, the first bomb killed two baggage handlers at Japan's Narita airport, as they transferred it to Air India Flight 201. The second exploded 54 minutes later aboard Air India Flight 182, killing all 329 aboard.

Defense lawyers maintain their clients are innocent and prosecution witnesses were either lying or delusional.

"The witnesses weren't credible," said Malik's lawyer David Crossin. "Their case collapsed."

So far, only Inderjit Singh Reyat, an immigrant to Canada, has been punished for the 1985 terrorism. He was convicted in 1991 for providing materials for the bomb at Tokyo's Narita airport.

Last year, he also pled guilty to manslaughter in the Flight 182 bombing. He is serving two sentences totalling 15 years. The alleged mastermind of the plot, Tarwinder Singh Parma, died in a 1992 police shootout in India.

With the trial of Bagri and Malik now over, it's past time for an inquiry into the bombings, said Perviz Madon, whose husband Sam, a college professor, died aboard Air India on June 23, 1985.

"I am so tired, but we need the answers," said Madon.

Relatives believe that if the details of the Air India bombings had emerged immediately, global airline practices would have changed before the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in which 270 people died.

In both disasters, critics blamed lax airport and airline security.

A public inquiry would also investigate how police and intelligence agents handled the Air India case, which was plagued by infighting between agencies and the erasure of evidence.

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