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Supporters in India cheer acquittals

'We began dancing on our rooftop when the verdict came,' Bagri's aunt says

The Globe and Mail, March 18, 2005

The acquittal of Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri in the Air-India bombing was cause for celebration yesterday among their friends and supporters in India, even as relatives of the 329 victims mourned their loss anew.

Drummers played the traditional Bhangra musical beats as jubilant neighbours visited Mr. Bagri's ancestral home in the farming village of Chak Kalan, 98 kilometres from Amritsar, in Punjab.

"As soon as the news of Bagri's acquittal spread, neighbours with sweets poured into our home," said Tirath Singh, Mr. Bagri's 23-year-old nephew. "We last saw him in 1999 and now we expect him to return very soon."

Surinder Kaur, Mr. Bagri's aunt, added: "We began dancing on our rooftop when the verdict came and now our child will return home."

In Ferozepur, Mr. Malik's hometown, 160 kilometres from Amritsar, relatives expressed gratitude that the family's reputation had been restored as they received the congratulations of neighbours.

Bhai Ranjit Singh, a friend of Mr. Malik, was jubilant: "He has been trapped in a conspiracy and his whole family has suffered and paid a heavy price.

"This case has defamed the name of the whole Sikh community."

The Air-India bombing case, known in India as Kanishka, the name of the 747 blown up off the coast of Ireland on June 23, 1985, dominated headlines, talk shows and Internet chat rooms yesterday. Some people expressed outrage: "I have heard of justice delayed is justice denied, this is justice delayed and justice denied," one person weighed in on The Times of India website.

Others criticized the police investigation, asking: "Why was crucial evidence destroyed?"

In his acquittal of Mr. Bagri and Mr. Malik on Wednesday, Mr. Justice Ian Bruce Josephson of the British Columbia Supreme Court found that evidence in the trial fell "markedly short" for a conviction, noting that prosecution witnesses were not credible.

While religious leaders and Sikh activists were relieved that two prominent Sikhs were found not to be responsible, they also questioned the ability of Canadian police and the judiciary to find the real killers.

"Who are the real culprits behind this heinous crime?" asked Ranjit Singh Kuki, a former militant who still supports the dream of Khalistan, an independent Sikh state.

A spokesperson for the Sharomany Khalsa Dal, a political organization of ex-militants and Khalistan supporters, said the case had branded all Sikhs as terrorists in the public's mind.

He said the court's verdict finally removed this tainted association. "This is significant in the post-9/11 world scenario."

Mohkam Singh, a member of another Sikh organization, also applauded the ruling: "Now they have been freed because they are innocent, it is good news. Canadian judiciary has set an example."

The Air-India bombing was the world's most devastating air attack, killing the most people, second only to the terrorist hijackings in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.

Relatives of the victims were disappointed by the trial's outcome, and called on the Canadian government to investigate further. "If [they are] not the culprits, then who is it?" asked film actor Vijayendra Ghatge whose sister Sangeeta was killed in the bombing.

She was a hostess aboard Air-India Flight 182 when it was blown up.

The flight originated in Vancouver, and the plane exploded and crashed off Ireland. An hour earlier, a bomb in baggage intended for another Air- India flight exploded at Tokyo's Narita airport, killing two baggage handlers.

Bhai Ranjit Singh, president of the supreme religious body of Sikhs, declined to comment on the verdict, saying it was a decision of the courts.

With a report from Agence France-Presse

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