Vancouver Inderjit Singh Reyat has been sentenced to five years in prison after pleading guilty to manslaughter of 329 people in the deadliest crime in Canadian history.In an unexpected deal that could shorten the trial of two other men in the case, Mr. Reyat has admitted he acquired material for a bomb that police allege caused a mid-air explosion aboard an Air-India flight from Canada in June of 1985. He has completed a 10-year sentence for his role in a second bombing the same day.
In exchange for his admission, prosecutors have accepted that he did not make the Air-India bomb, did not intend to kill anyone and does not know who placed the bomb on the plane.
The bomb explosion aboard the Air-India flight is the worst terrorist attack against civilians except for Sept. 11, 2001. It terrified travellers and shook relations between Canada and India.
Chief Justice Donald Brenner of the B.C. Supreme Court said the Air-India bombing had "consequences which were tragic almost beyond description.
"It is important on a day like today we not forget those who are not present. There are 329 of them and they should very much be on our minds," he said.
Crown prosecutors agreed to drop first-degree-murder charges against Mr. Reyat, 51, an electrician, and charge him with one count of manslaughter in the 329 deaths. The prosecutors also agreed to support a sentence of five years in a minimum-security prison in exchange for a guilty plea.
The deal, endorsed by Chief Justice Brenner, is expected to reduce the length of the first-degree-murder trial of two others who were to be tried with him -- Ripudaman Singh Malik of Vancouver and Ajaib Singh Bagri of Kamloops, B.C.
Potential jurors had been told the trial could last two or three years. But with one less accused, it will take less time, Geoffrey Gaul, spokesman for the prosecution, told reporters, although he did not say how much less.
Mr. Reyat has not agreed to be a witness in the Air-India trial. But he could be subpoenaed to testify like anyone else, Mr. Reyat's lawyer, David Gibbons, said. The Crown did not say yesterday whether it would call Mr. Reyat.
Despite a multimillion-dollar investigation that spanned three continents, no one until now has been convicted in connection with the crime.
Mr. Reyat, who has been in custody since February of 1988, has already served 10 years for manslaughter for making a bomb that killed two baggage handlers in Japan's Narita airport. That one exploded 54 minutes before the Air-India bomb.
Chief Justice Brenner decided that five more years in jail for Mr. Reyat was an appropriate sentence after taking into consideration the time he has spent in custody.
According to calculations based on rulings of higher courts, when his 10-year sentence and time spent in custody awaiting trial are factored in, Mr. Reyat has received the equivalent of a 25-year sentence for conviction on manslaughter charges for the Narita and Air-India deaths, he said.
Victoria lawyer Michael Mulligan, chairman of the Canadian Bar Association's criminal-justice section, said people should not be quick to criticize what might seem like a light sentence for Mr. Reyat.
"The Crown is in the best position to know its case. They have been working on it for a long time. They know what they can prove and what they can't prove," Mr. Mulligan said.
A murder conviction requires proof of a subjective intent to kill, he said, while manslaughter does not.
The plea bargain is a setback for investigators who have alleged for almost 18 years that Mr. Reyat was part of a plot by Canadian-based Sikh militants seeking revenge against the government of India.
However, his admission confirms their allegations that a bomb was made.
Bob Wright, head of the Air-India prosecution team, told the court that the evidence supports only that Mr. Reyat helped others build a bomb. "There is no direct evidence that [Mr. Reyat] intended to kill anyone," Mr. Wright said.
Canadian authorities became aware of Mr. Reyat as a result of a request from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The FBI had uncovered a plot to assassinate Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi during a visit to the United States. They asked Canada's spy agency to keep an eye on Talwinder Singh Parmar, a self-styled leader in Canada of a militant Sikh separatist group called Babbar Khalsa.
CSIS began tapping Mr. Parmar's phone in March of 1985 and following him in early June.
Mr. Parmar and another person came to see Mr. Reyat in Duncan, B.C., on June 4, 1985.
CSIS agents who were following Mr. Parmar have said they thought they heard shots in the woods near Duncan.
After blasts in the Narita airport and aboard the Air-India flight, the RCMP went to the woods and found evidence that suggested a bomb had been exploded.
Police linked several items used to make the two bombs to items that Mr. Reyat had bought shortly before the explosions.
Mr. Reyat became a target of the massive Air-India police investigation by August of 1985. He was arrested on Nov. 6, 1985, along with Mr. Parmar and three other people.
With a report from Rod Mickleburgh