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After 19 long years, a verdict nears in terror case

VANCOUVER

ook more than $100-million and 19 years of investigative work.

But after hearing testimony from 115 witnesses during 183 days in court, the mammoth Air-India international terrorism trial has boiled down, at its simplest, to conflicting versions of private conversations between alleged religious terrorists Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri and people they once considered their friends.

Before the trial concludes this fall, Mr. Justice Ian Bruce Josephson will have to decide whether mistakes by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service -- which violated the rights of the accused under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to have a fair trial -- should have an impact on the outcome.

Then the judge will have to decide on who to believe.

Tomorrow, the prosecution and defence lawyers will put the finishing touches on the package of testimony from witnesses.

After some final legal arguments and submissions this fall, the judge will sit down to make his decision.

The case against Mr. Malik, 57, and Mr. Bagri, 54, is circumstantial. They were not connected to the crime by physical evidence or firsthand testimony. They did not enter the witness box to give their own accounts of their activities.

Mr. Malik is accused of playing a role in planning the disaster and giving $3,005 to a friend to pick up the tickets for the flight.

Mr. Bagri, an angry Sikh preacher who advocated bloody revenge against the Indian government, was allegedly part of the group that took luggage with explosives to the airport.

Prosecution witnesses said Mr. Malik and Mr. Bagri admitted their part in carrying out the deadly scheme to friends they thought they could trust.

The defence argued the conversations never took place and those testifying for the prosecution were not credible, not reliable and dishonest.

The defence suggested radical Sikhs, possibly from Toronto or the United States, carried out the plan in co-operation with a group of religious terrorists in Vancouver that did not include Mr. Malik or Mr. Bagri.

The attacks killed 331 people and remains the deadliest assault in aviation history, except for the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

Many witnesses left the courtroom shaken.

Under intensive questioning by some of the top lawyers in Canada, prosecution and defence witnesses often sounded confused and desperate when they were pushed to defend their own credibility. They stammered and shed tears as they tried to explain embarrassing moments from their own lives. Some contradicted testimony they had given only moments earlier.

For families of the victims, just walking into the courtroom was difficult. The trial ripped open 19-year-old wounds that had never healed.

They were upset when they saw Mr. Malik and Mr. Bagri step into the courtroom wearing colourful traditional Sikh outfits, not prison clothes, and wave to their own families in the public gallery. They quietly sobbed as the court heard evidence of the horrific mid-air bomb blasts. They fumed over tactics of aggressive defence lawyers and testimony of defence witnesses who offered alternative explanations. The basic narrative set out shortly after the bomb blasts on June 23, 1985, stood mostly unchallenged. Within 16 hours after the explosions, the Indian consul-general in Toronto spoke to a reporter from The Globe and Mail. The bombing was the work of Sikh terrorists, he told the newspaper.

A group of radical Sikhs based in British Columbia and seeking revenge against the government of India was involved in the conspiracy, witnesses testified. Luggage with explosives was checked onto two Vancouver flights connecting to Air-India flights. Reservations for the two flights were made three days before the planes left Vancouver. Tickets costing $3,005 were picked up two days before.

On the day of the flights, an airline agent bent the rules to allow one of the bags from Vancouver to be transferred in Toronto to an Air-India flight without anyone claiming the bag to check it in again. The bomb exploded in mid-air over the Atlantic Ocean, killing all crew and passengers. The second bomb blew up at Tokyo's airport, exploding moments before the luggage was to be transferred to an Air-India flight.

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