Skip navigation

How the Air-India bombings became a saga

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

Vancouver — Vancouver Sikh priest Talwinder Singh Parmar was identified as the mastermind behind the Air-India disaster just hours after two explosions on opposite sides of the world killed 331 people on June 23, 1985.

Within weeks, the RCMP identified six more suspects. By November, 1985, police were ready to arrest a circle of conspirators.

Yet prosecutors took 151/2 years to press criminal charges and the court took another 41/2 years to deliver a verdict.

Why did it take so long?

Evidence at the international terrorism trial, which ends today in Vancouver with the judge delivering his verdict, indicated that the biggest handicaps were the lack of a crime scene and the absence of well-placed sources. The investigation was also dragged down by the negligence of CSIS, the incompetence of RCMP officers and a breakdown in relations between the two agencies.

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the RCMP and Crown prosecutors have remained tightlipped for years about the investigation and the court proceedings, repeatedly refusing requests for interviews. Three successive prime ministers have declined to demand a public accounting.

However, the murder trial of Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri provided a glimpse into the problems confronting the investigation. Internal RCMP and CSIS documents submitted to court show the investigation started well.

Several suspects were identified soon after the terrorist attack as a result of effective police work, especially forensic analysis in Japan of fragments from a bomb.

Mechanic Inderjit Singh Reyat was successfully prosecuted in 1991 for helping to make a bomb that exploded in Japan, killing two baggage handlers at Tokyo's Narita airport. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison on manslaughter and explosives charges.

But then the investigation fizzled out. No one else was charged. Police could not find anyone from the inner circle of the alleged conspiracy who would co-operate with them. Nor could they find any physical evidence that incriminated a suspect.

Collecting evidence was almost impossible, with the main crime scene at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, where Air-India Flight 182 went down. Deep-sea dives to retrieve wreckage from the ocean failed to find evidence linking the bomb to a suspect.

The prosecution refused to approve criminal charges against other suspects until finally, in 1997 and 1998, witnesses came forward willing to testify against Mr. Bagri and Mr. Malik.

CSIS has borne the brunt of the criticism for the long delays in laying charges. The agency had wiretaps on the prime suspect, Mr. Parmar, from three months before the disaster until one month after. But CSIS erased most of the wiretap recordings, destroying what could have been the best evidence in the case and threatening the defendants' right to a fair trial. The prosecution conceded that CSIS acted with "unacceptable negligence."

CSIS maintained that standard procedures required the tapes to be routinely destroyed after a specific period of time, unless there were a national-security reason to preserve them. "It's not like a case where you are prosecuting, and you've got evidence, and you're destroying [it]," federal government lawyer Harry Wruck has said.

The bureaucratic response may explain why the tapes made before the disaster were destroyed. But it does not explain why the spy agency erased 244 tapes of conversations made after they suspected Mr. Parmar was involved in the Air-India disaster or why they were reluctant to tell the RCMP after the disaster that they had intercepted Mr. Parmar's phone calls.

Some RCMP officers have speculated that CSIS had a mole in the inner circle of the alleged conspiracy, implying that the spy agency knew that bombs were to be put on airplanes and did not take steps to stop it. CSIS may have undermined efforts to bring the case to trial to protect its source, one RCMP officer has suggested.

CSIS has vehemently denied that it had any advance information about the disaster or that it had an inside agent. Lashing back, CSIS officials speculated that the RCMP attacked the spy agency as a strategic offensive in case criminal charges were thrown out of court.

The tape erasures were not the only example of friction between agencies undermining the investigation. A CSIS agent was told in 1987 about possible evidence linking Mr. Bagri to the disaster, but the information did not reach the RCMP for three years.

The RCMP also had strained relations with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, which had an informant with crucial evidence. The FBI had information about the possible involvement of Mr. Bagri in the alleged conspiracy but did not tell the RCMP for at least two years.

The court also heard the Mounties mishandled the investigation in the 1990s, and the judge rejected the testimony of several RCMP officers, citing their failure to follow proper procedures in gathering evidence.

The length of the trial reflected the shortcomings of the investigation.

The proceedings initially bogged down on matters related to a third member of the alleged conspiracy, Mr. Reyat. The prosecution wanted the trial to deal with Mr. Reyat at the same time as Mr. Malik and Mr. Bagri. But before Mr. Reyat's case could proceed, the prosecution spent months rectifying mistakes made in his extradition from England in the 1980s. He subsequently pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the death of the 329 people aboard Flight 182, and in February, 2003, drew a controversial five-year sentence. He had already served the 10-year sentence for the Tokyo bombing.

The trial also dragged on because the prosecution lacked a credible witness from the inner circle to testify on the most basic elements of the alleged conspiracy. Witnesses may have been hard to find because they were intimidated by the threat of violence if they spoke to police. It was also delayed after several lawyers quit in protest because the children of one of the defendants were put on the defence team payroll. The new lawyer was given several months to come up to speed on the case.

The prosecution required several witnesses and lengthy testimony to show that a conspiracy existed, that Mr. Bagri and Mr. Malik associated with some members of the conspiracy, and that the plane really did explode as a result of a bomb checked on a flight in Vancouver.

Mr. Parmar, the suspected mastermind of the co-ordinated attacks, was never brought to justice. The Sikh separatist militant was killed in a shootout with Indian police in a village in Punjab, in October of 1992.

Recommend this article? 3 votes

Back to top