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Air-India bombing: A 20-year push for justice

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

Toronto — Bal Gupta has been in the forefront of a 20-year campaign to bring those responsible for the Air-India disaster to justice. But as the verdict in the historic international terrorism trial in Vancouver is about to be delivered, he is gloomy.

"Seeing the court proceedings brought no relief," said Mr. Gupta, whose wife, Rama, was killed in the mid-air bomb explosion on June 23, 1985.

Regardless of the verdict, a judicial inquiry should be appointed into the Air-India disaster and the subsequent investigation, Mr. Gupta said.

"It is the biggest tragedy to ever happen in Canada, and the answers were not there [in the courtroom]," he said, referring to terrorist actions.

After a trial that began 23 months ago, Mr. Justice Ian Bruce Josephson of the B.C. Supreme Court is to read out a summary of his decision tomorrow. Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri are accused of murder in the deaths of 329 people in a mid-air explosion aboard Air-India Flight 182 on June 23, 1985. They also face murder charges in the deaths of two people in an explosion 54 minutes earlier in a bomb blast at Tokyo's Narita airport.

"You can say I should give credit when credit is due," Mr. Gupta said in an interview at his modest home in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke. The victims' families first criticized the government for not taking anyone to court, then suspects were taken to court and a lengthy trial was held, he noted.

But Mr. Gupta said he does not find it easy to give credit for taking a case to court based mostly on information known in the 1980s. He is troubled by mistakes made by the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service that prolonged the investigation.

His call for a judicial inquiry, despite the two-year Air-India trial, is echoed by several people at Sikh temples, members of the Indo-Canadian community and some relatives of victims of the bombing.

The trial exposed an investigation dogged by gross negligence, incompetence and indifference, and the Mounties, the spy agency and the federal government should be held accountable, they say.

They recount a litany of errors: destruction of potentially the best evidence in the case by erasing tapes of crucial information recorded through wiretaps, the payment of an unprecedented $300,000 (U.S.) to an American to fly to Vancouver and testify, the destruction of evidence, the bringing in of witnesses who lied and RCMP officers who misled victims' families about the investigation.

They also question why CSIS, on the day before the attack, discontinued surveillance of a suspected terrorist who turned out to be the mastermind behind the co-ordinated bombings. They blame lawyers for undermining the perception of justice by putting children of one defendant on the government-financed defence payroll. They criticize airline employees for ignoring security rules at Vancouver airport and ignoring security alarms in Toronto.

Mr. Gupta has been the voice of the victims' families since the disaster happened. After the RCMP failed to arrest anyone in the 1980s, he lobbied the federal government for a commission of inquiry into the disaster and the subsequent investigation. He said he was reflecting the consensus of families who talked together on issues.

Trial evidence shows that the police investigation wound down in 1991, but the federal government at that time refused to appoint a judicial inquiry into the disaster, saying the case was still under investigation. Despite the lull in their work, the police told families that the investigation was continuing and that a judicial inquiry would interfere with their work. The RCMP renewed its investigation in 1995, and arrested Mr. Malik and Mr. Bagri in 2000.

When asked to look back at what the families accomplished, Mr. Gupta shrugged. "I don't know what we achieved. I don't know the value of our efforts. It all came to naught."

The struggle to cope with their grief over the deaths was made more difficult by what happened afterward, he said. "There was so much government incompetence. I don't know why. I can only guess. The families feel very bitter about it."

At the top of his list is the government's response to the families at the time of the attack, which Mr. Gupta feels was inadequate. As far as he knows, the government in the 1980s and early 1990s never contacted any family members of the bombing victims. He is not aware of former prime minister Brian Mulroney having met with any grieving families to express condolences. Nor did Mr. Mulroney make speeches about how the government intended to respond to the terrorist attack, and his cabinet ministers were equally reticent, Mr. Gupta said.

"We tried many times to meet with cabinet ministers. No one would meet with us. They said it was under investigation. We tried to meet with Norm Inkster [the former head of the RCMP], and he would not meet with us. He said it would not serve any purpose."

The families did meet with John Bassett, who was the head of the citizens' watchdog committee overseeing CSIS from 1989 to 1992.

"He said, 'We know the people who did this, but we cannot put them down.' They knew the names in 1985," Mr. Gupta said. "What was going on? There is a weakness in the system — 329 people murdered [on Air-India Flight 182], and you cannot investigate and bring them to justice for 20 years."

Mr. Gupta said the problems in the Air-India case reflect a failure of the system. Despite the passage of time, he added, it is not clear whether anything was done to correct the problems.

"We have a right to know. It is not a concern only for black people or brown or blue people only. It is for all Canadians. All Canadians will be cheated if answers are not there. ..... When there is a failure of the system and a chance of a recurrence, you need a public inquiry."

The families also hit roadblocks when they sought compensation, Mr. Gupta recalled. The biggest hurdles were put up by the federal government.

"The biggest adversary was not Air-India or CP Air," he said, referring to the CP Air flight from Vancouver that connected to the Air-India flight that carried the bomb. "It was our own government. They did not have one sympathetic bone in their body."

At every stage, the federal government tried to use Crown prerogatives to undermine the families' case: The government insisted that families put money up front for the lawsuit, in case the families lost, and it refused to disclose key information, he said.

In a lawsuit arising from the disaster, the airlines and airport security companies paid in U.S. funds most of the settlements.

Victims' families received $10,000 to $20,000 for children under 13, who accounted for about 80 of the 329 deaths on the Air-India flight. Families of non-earning adults received $75,000, while a complicated formula set the compensation for adults who were earning incomes.

Whoever is responsible for the bombings and the hundreds of deaths should be punished, Amanpreet Singh Bal said in an interview at a Mississauga temple, the Ontario Khalsa Darbar.

"It's never too late," added Mr. Bal, who is active in the World Sikh Organization. "We need to know what took place in our home, who did it and why they were allowed to run free for 15 or 20 years."

Tomorrow's verdict in the Vancouver court will not settle the questions that continue to swirl around the case, he added.

"No matter what the verdict in court is, one side will say it is not fair. If Malik and Bagri are convicted, some people will say they are scapegoats. If they are found not guilty, others will say Canada is too lenient in dealing with terrorists."

Mr. Bal dismissed the suggestion that the disaster happened too long ago to warrant a judicial inquiry. "Someone should set the record straight and not let those lives be lost without an explanation. Canada owes it to them."

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