Justice Delayed and Denied
Somber and expectant, they silently snaked into the courtroom hoping to hear words that would close the most painful chapter in their lives. An hour later, they emerged out into the rain-swept street, eyes brimming with tears and voices laced with agony and anger. Justice eluded them once again - as it had for the past 20 years.
The two men accused of bombing the Air India craft that reduced their loved ones to mangled body statistics have been pronounced not-guilty. Coalescing after a while, the angry family members of victims reiterated their long-standing demand for a public inquiry into the 1985 Air India bombing which snuffed out 329 lives in mid-air over the Atlantic, and bonded these strangers in shared grief. "It only goes to show why there needs to be a public inquiry; there was obviously a failure in all of the agencies that were meant to protect us," said Susheel Gupta whose mother was aboard that flight.
Her steely voice belying her diminutive frame, Lata Pada fumed, "There have been severe and unforgivable lapses in the system which demand to be investigated. The government needs to be held accountable for this betrayal that they have served all of us today." Her husband and two daughters were on that plane.
The demand for an inquiry has gained urgency after justice through the legal route seems improbable. If a case, put together after 18 years of investigation and an expense of Canadian $130 million (1US$=C$1.22) could not stand the legal litmus test, the chances of future success seems bleak. The first arrests in this complex case were made 15 years after the incident. As direct evidence lies buried under the sea, the case has hinged largely on circumstantial evidence.
Since early 2003, all eyes were fixed on British Columbia's Supreme Court where Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri were being tried for the crime. Judge Ian Bruce Josephson sat through 19 months of testimony and thousands of pages of documents. The prosecution contended that Malik and Bagri were part of a radical Sikh group and presented evidence which, they claimed, proved the group built suitcase bombs on Vancouver Island, bought airplane tickets, then planted the explosives on two flights from Vancouver that connected with Air India planes.
The prosecution argued that the act was in retaliation to the 1984 raid by Indian forces on the Golden Temple at Amritsar and to further the demand for Khalistan. Neither of the accused testified in their defence. On March 16, in a packed high-security courtroom the two men were acquitted on all eight counts including conspiracy, murder, and attempted murder.
As the victims' families and friends went numb with shock and grief, those of the accused were pleasantly stunned. As they punched their fists in the air, Pada's hands reached up to shut her ears. Bal Gupta, who lost his wife Ramvati, and was in the court with his son Susheel, looked on incredulously. Susheel was a boy when his mother died; he is now a 32-year-old man. He walked in with his father that day with hope but stepped out dejected.
The judge agreed with the prosecution that bombs were loaded in Vancouver, the bombing was carried out by Sikh militants and that it was a terrorist act masterminded by Talwinder Singh Parmar. But he said he could not conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that the two men were involved in the terrorist plot. Reading out the executive summary of his 625-page judgement, Josephson said justice is not achieved if persons are convicted on anything less than the requisite standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
The case against Malik and Bagri was largely circumstantial, and based largely on conversations each was said to have had before and after the June 23, 1985 bombings. The judge concluded each of the key witnesses was not credible or implausible in the extreme. He discarded the testimonies of two star witnesses on whose testimonies lay the prosecution's hopes.
The first was Malik's former employee who is under a witness protection programme. She testified that she "had a close relationship" with Malik and he had admitted in 1997, that he had been deeply involved in the planning and execution of the plan. The two fell out later but she admitted during cross-examination that she still loved him and respected him. Josephson said he didn't believe she could still love the man after all that he is alleged to have told her. "That surprise edges toward incredulity," the judge observed. "I am unable to rely on her evidence."
Another witness against Bagri, said the latter boasted about his role when they discussed the bombings at a gas station in New Jersey. But Bagri's lawyers attacked his credibility.
"Why did they even have this trial? We were suffering anyway. Now we will suffer more," was the anguished cry of 75-year-old Rattan Singh Kalsi whose daughter was among those killed. Sanjay Lazar, who travelled from Mumbai to be in Vancouver said, "I am totally hollow, feeling anger and sorrow like so many families." He lost his parents and sister.
The demand for a public inquiry is rooted in the bungling that has plagued the investigation from the start. The role of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) has been singled for attack. Parmar, who even Josephson admitted was the mastermind of the terrorist act, was under surveillance by CSIS well before the 1985 bombing. The agency had taped his phone conversations as well as some other suspects but for some reason destroyed all those tapes. Parmar was subsequently killed by Indian police in 1992.
Josephson slammed the unacceptable negligence of CSIS, noting it had deliberately destroyed tapes and interviews. Inderjit Singh Reyat was the only person ever convicted of involvement in the attack. Reyat admitted buying materials that were used to build the bomb, but denied having any knowledge about the blast and pleaded guilty to manslaughter early in 2004.
The reluctance of witnesses to testify has been another roadblock. The murder of Vancouver-based newspaper publisher, Inderjit Singh Hayer, in the early 1990s silenced others. Hayer, a vocal critic of Sikh extremists, had told the police that Bagri had confessed to his role when the duo met a London-based publisher Tarsem Singh Purewal in London. Purewal was also subsequently assassinated.
The government can file an appeal against this decision in 30 days but the victims' families - whose emotional ache fuels the determination to continue this struggle - are sticking with the inquiry demand. Canada's Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan does not see any merit in holding an inquiry but the opposition as well as members from the ruling Liberal party have joined the chorus.
Placing this act in the context of terrorism, says Bal Gupta, an inquiry is necessary to address systemic flaws and make Canadians more secure.
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