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Marathon Air-India trial in hands of judge Highly regarded for his integrity, B.C. Supreme Court justice gave few clues how he will rule in the case of two men accused of killing 331 people, ROBERT MATAS writes

Highly regarded for his integrity, B.C. Supreme Court justice gave few clues how he will rule in the case of two men accused of killing 331 people, ROBERT MATAS writes


r 217 days of listening to evidence and legal arguments, Mr. Justice Ian Bruce Josephson withdrew yesterday to consider his verdict in the Air-India trial.

The British Columbia Supreme Court judge said he would return with his decision on March 16. He walked out without leaving any clues about which direction he may take.

The trial, by judge alone, heard chilling testimony alleging a conspiracy among a group of Canadians inspired by politics and religion to kill hundreds of people with homemade bombs. At times during the trial, the courtroom could barely contain the raw emotions of those who were touched by the deaths of 331 people.

Throughout it all, Judge Josephson remained inscrutable.

"It's absolutely astonishing how few clues he provided," said one of the Air-India lawyers, who wished to remain anonymous. "The best indication of what a judge is thinking is what he says spontaneously. But we didn't get any of that during the trial."

Vancouver businessman Ripudaman Singh Malik, 57, and Kamloops mill worker Ajaib Singh Bagri, 55, are charged with murdering the 329 people who died in a mid-air explosion aboard an Air-India flight on June 23, 1985, and the two baggage handlers killed in a bomb explosion 54 minutes earlier at Tokyo's Narita airport.

The twin bombings, unparalleled in aviation history, brought the most extensive and most expensive international investigation Canadian authorities have ever undertaken, involving more than 450 RCMP officers and staff. The disaster defined the identity of Canada's Sikh community for a generation.

The prosecution says Mr. Malik made arrangements for the bombs to be put on the planes, reserved airline tickets, and paid for them. Mr. Bagri is accused of helping to take suitcases with bombs to the Vancouver airport.

The prosecution was based entirely on circumstantial evidence. The court did not hear any insider testimony. The prosecution had no physical evidence linking the defendants to the crime. The two men did not testify.

Key witnesses for the prosecution said the men admitted their involvement in private conversations. Defence witnesses raised doubts about the credibility of those people, suggesting that the conversations at the centre of the prosecution case never took place.

After the trial adjourned, defence lawyer David Crossin said the case against Mr. Malik collapsed in court. He confidently predicted Mr. Malik would be found not guilty.

The prosecution was also confident. "We presented a strong case of substance before the court," said Geoff Gaul, spokesman for the prosecution. "We feel satisfied with the work we have done."

Despite the volatile atmosphere surrounding the case, civility remained paramount in Judge Josephson's courtroom. Those who know him say his approach reflects his personality. He sees things intellectually. He does not like flamboyance.

"He is the ideal person to have a trial like [the Air-India trial]," Mr. Justice Wally Oppal of the B.C. Court of Appeal, said in an interview. "He knows the law well; he's a person who deals with matters calmly and dispassionately. Fairness and patience are the two qualities required in that case, and he clearly has that."

His style reflects his experience of 29 years on the bench after a relatively short time as a lawyer advocating on behalf of clients.

Judge Josephson practised law for six years in southeast B.C. before his appointment in 1975 as a judge in Provincial Court. The announcement of his appointment startled his colleagues. He was only 30, with limited experience as a lawyer and years younger than most others on the bench.

He moved up to associate chief judge of the Provincial Court in 1985 and became chief judge in 1988. But his tenure at the top was short, causing speculation about rivalries in the backrooms of the judiciary. He was transferred to County Court in the Vancouver suburb of New Westminster in 1989, and then to the Supreme Court of British Columbia in 1990.

Lawyers who have appeared before him in the Air-India case and other cases say he is a perceptive, well-organized judge who understands legal arguments quickly. He has an analytical mind and is knowledgeable about the law.

"A nice judge to work with: always with you and often half a step ahead. He may not agree with you, but he gets where you are going," said one lawyer who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Some judges test their views against the evidence and legal arguments with probing questions during the trial. Judge Josephson's preference is to hear all available evidence from both prosecution and defence lawyers, and then sift through the material at the end of the proceedings. He lets counsel run their case as they see fit.

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