Vancouver In the biggest and most expensive murder investigation in Canadian history, the RCMP arrested two men yesterday in the 1985 bombing of Air-India Flight 182 that killed 329 passengers and crew.
The RCMP laid joint charges against wealthy businessman Ripudaman Singh Malik, 53, and Ajaib Singh Bagri, 51, who were arrested separately shortly after noon local time. They face eight counts of murder, attempted murder and conspiring to bomb several aircraft at the height of an insurgency in the 1980s for an independent Sikh homeland in India.
The main charge accuses the pair of first-degree murder of all 329 people aboard the Air-India flight that blew apart over the Atlantic as it approached the coast of Ireland.
The mid-flight bombing remains the world's worst single act of air terrorism and the charge perhaps the largest accusation of mass murder ever laid against individuals.
The two are also charged in connection with a bomb that exploded among some baggage at Tokyo's Narita airport as it was being transferred to another Air-India flight. Two baggage handlers were killed in the blast, about an hour before the explosion of Flight 182.
An RCMP spokesperson said more arrests are expected.
The charges have their roots in the mid-1980s when a group of Sikh militants living in the Lower Mainland are alleged to have opted for violent revenge after the storming of the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar by Indian troops in 1984.
For thousands of Canadians who lost relatives and friends aboard the flight from Toronto and Montreal to India, the sudden announcement was the biggest step yet toward a resolution in an emotionally tumultuous and politically charged investigation that some Sikhs fear will never end. The 15-year investigation, which continues, has divided Canada's Sikh community, brought discredit to investigators and cost the Canadian government an estimated $26-million.
”We've been waiting for this day for a long, long time, for 15 years,” said Sendaram Ramakesavan, a computer programr who immigrated to Canada in the 1970s and lost his first Canadian friends, a Sikh couple and their two children, in the bombing.
The RCMP contacted 123 members of victim's families before the announcement to prepare them for the news.
”They showed very mixed emotions,” said Constable Cate Galliford, spokeswoman for the Air-India Task Force. “It's been 15 years. A lot have moved on with their lives. This opened up a lot of things that they had put behind them, but they are very relieved.”
The trial is expected to become the next epic chapter, requiring as many as 1,000 witnesses, evidence from three continents and probably years of court time.
The two suspects are to appear in a B.C. court on Monday.
Mr. Bagri, a sawmill worker who headed a B.C. group known as Babbar Khalsa, which is believed to be linked to Babbar Khalsa International, considered a terrorist group by the federal government, was arrested outside his home in Kamloops.
He was also charged in the 1988 attempted murder of Tara Singh Hayer, publisher of the Indo-Canadian Times newspaper. Mr. Hayer, a staunch critic of B.C.'s fundamentalist Sikh community, was paralyzed that year in a gun attack, and shot dead in 1998.
Police said they do not have evidence to show the two attacks were connected.
”It has been a very difficult and sad day today,” said Mr. Hayer's son, David, who attended an RCMP news conference in Vancouver. “At least there are suspects now.”
Mr. Malik, a high-profile, politically well-connected and wealthy financier, was arrested at a scandal-plagued fundamentalist Sikh school in Surrey, near Vancouver.
Some reports said he was escorted out by police in the middle of a religious service.
Constable Galliford refused to comment on suggestions there was an airline ticket on Mr. Malik's desk when he was arrested.
The RCMP say the two Canadian men conspired with Inderjit Singh Reyat and Talwinder Singh Parmar, a relative of Mr. Bagri by marriage, and possibly others, to plant bombs on two international flights on June 23, 1985. The explosives, originally placed on a Canadian Pacific Airlines flight from Vancouver to Narita, Japan, never reached a connecting Air-India flight to Bangkok, but went off prematurely, killing the baggage handlers. The other set of explosives brought down Air-India Flight 182 over the North Atlantic near the coast of Ireland, killing everyone on board, including 280 Canadians.
B.C. Premier Ujjal Dosanjh, the first Indo-Canadian to hold such office, said he has encountered Mr. Malik a few times. “I've known him in the community,” he said.
”He's been around a long time. I've met him at many events. One is always shocked to find people charged. I don't think it's appropriate for me to make any other value judgments or comments on his arrest.”
He said that he hopes the “sad and tragic saga” of the Air-India crash will end soon. “I know this has been a very difficult time in the life of British Columbia, the life of Canada, and more particularly, in the Indo-Canadian community starting in the mid-eighties. I'm hoping that a successful prosecution in this particular matter will put an end to that sad and tragic saga.”
A team of 13 crown prosecutors has been assembled for what could be one of the most complex and expensive trials in Canadian history.
Although charges have been laid, they do not mark the end of the police investigation, Constable Galliford said. “We are continuing to receive information that is being followed up.”
Police sources have long referred to as many as eight suspects in the bombings, although that number is now believed to be lower.
So far, Mr. Reyat, an electrician from Duncan, B.C., is the only person convicted on any charges connected with the bombings. He is serving a 10-year sentence for manslaughter in the Narita airport bombing.
He was accused of building the bomb or a model of the bomb that went off. His sentence expires next June.
Mr. Parmar, long identified by Canadian and Indian police as the bombing's mastermind and their chief suspect, was killed in India in 1992, allegedly in a gun battle with police. However, Canadian police sources say he was killed in Indian police custody.
Mr. Parmar, who was living in suburban Burnaby at the time of the bombings, was perhaps the most high-profile and militant advocate of Khalistan, a separate state for Sikhs in India, that was an emotional goal for many Sikhs living in the Lower Mainland at the time.
The charges identified the jailed Mr. Reyat and the late Mr. Parmar as unindicted co-conspirators in the bombings.
The investigation still involves a special RCMP task force with 60 members, and may produce the largest body of evidence a Canadian court has ever seen.
With reports from John Stackhouse and Kim Lunman