Crime

IT CAN'T END HERE

Human decency and the national interest demand an inquiry into the Air-India tragedy, argues KEN MACQUEEN

March 28 2005
Crime

IT CAN'T END HERE

Human decency and the national interest demand an inquiry into the Air-India tragedy, argues KEN MACQUEEN

March 28 2005

IT CAN'T END HERE

Crime

“IN THE EARLY morning hours of June 23, 1985, two bomb-laden suitcases detonated half a world apart,” began B.C. Supreme Court Justice Ian Bruce Josephson, reading a verdict that set two men free and left hundreds more shackled to a 20-year-old tragedy that now seems beyond hope of resolution. At the end of an hour-long summation of his judgment—delivered in a surreal, blast-resistant room from behind bulletproof windows— the packed Vancouver courtroom was awash in conflicting emotions of relief and despair. Then, with the collapse of the prosecution complete, came angry calls for a public inquiry to deliver, if not justice, at least accountability for what many touched by the tragedy consider a botched investigation into a preventable act of terrorism.

Just one row of seats separated families of the 331 people killed in those two explosions from relatives and supporters of the two men prosecutors had labelled mass murderers: Ajaib Singh Bagri, 55, a Kamloops millworker and fiery orator, and Ripudaman Singh Malik, 58, an unbending Sikh fundamentalist, whose wealth and influence touches the educational, spiritual and business affairs of thousands of Sikhs throughout B.C.’s Lower Mainland. After Josephson said the RCMP and the prosecution’s case fell “markedly short” of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, supporters of Malik and Bagri responded to the not guilty verdicts with steepled hands, bows and grins. In the rows behind came gasps from the other solitude. “Bullshit,” muttered one person. Natasha Madon of North Vancouver, just five when her father, Sam, was murdered, fell sobbing into the arms of her mother, Perviz Madon. Rattan Singh Kalsi of London, Ont., leaning on a cane, pulled out a picture of his 21-yearold daughter, Indira, a stunning beauty killed when Air-lndia Flight 182 slammed into the Atlantic off the Irish coast. “This is my loss,” he said, barely containing his anger. “In God’s court, a higher court above this court, they will be punished one day.”

Human decency and the national interest demand an inquiry into the Air-India tragedy, argues KEN MACQUEEN

The verdict—reached after a two-decade, $ 100-million RCMP investigation and almost 350 days of court time—freed Bagri and Malik Malik (above, centre) celebrated as victims’ families demanded a reckoning

after more than four years in jail. It resolved little else. The judge concluded only that the two bombs—detonated an hour apart, one over the Atlantic, the other at Tokyo’s Narita airport—were loaded on Air-lndia flights in Vancouver as part of a conspiracy of revenge against the Indian government. The plot, the judge said, was rooted “in fanaticism at its basest and most inhumane level.”

Beyond that, the trial produced only questions: If not Malik and Bagri, who ran the conspiracy? Was it ineptitude, indifference or racism that led to such a flawed investigation? Should the case—as frail, damaged and incomplete as the parts of the recovered jetliner the prosecution assembled in a secret warehouse—have even gone to trial? Above all, what happens now? Is there value to a public inquiry after 20 years? Are there lessons to be learned that would justify the expense and the pain of reopening the past? There is much to suggest that there are. Among the reasons for an inquiry:

THE FAMILIES

Quite simply, many of the relatives of those who died aboard Flight 182 want one. They regrouped within hours of the verdict, dried their tears, and, in a poignant meeting with the media, demanded an inquiry. One by one they stood before a microphone and politely spelled their names. Many broke down describing the enormity of their loss.

Susheel Gupta, an Ottawa lawyer, 12 when his mother was killed, read a prepared statement on behalf of an association of victims’ families. The mass murder is the result of a systemic failure every bit as profound as the Westray mine disaster, the tainted blood scandal or the Walkerton water crisis, all topics of public inquiries or royal commissions, he said. He listed issues that need further investigation: why surveillance on suspects was suspended just days before the tragedy; why unaccompanied baggage was processed, screening systems weren’t functioning and communication broke down between the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the RCMP. Hundreds of hours of CSIS wiretaps recorded in the months surrounding the tragedy were erased before they could reach the RCMP—an action that has never been adequately explained. “Most of the failures of the systems were not even touched in the criminal trial,” Gupta said. An inquiry, he added, may be the only way to prevent a recurrence of past mistakes.

There is another nagging issue: a kind of genteel Canadian racism that has plagued this tragedy from the beginning and profoundly wounded many Indo-Canadians. In the immediate aftermath of the crash, then prime minister Brian Mulroney called India’s prime minister to offer condolences, although the huge majority of passengers on that plane were Canadian citizens. “Had this been a tragedy that affected mainstream, white, Anglo-Saxon Canadians,” said Lata Pada, a Toronto dancer who lost her husband, Vishnu, and two daughters, Brind and Arati, “I think the response would have been very different.” And it was. After the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 in the U.S., new anti-terrorism laws were rushed through Parliament.

GOVERNMENT INACTION

Liberal Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan was quick—too quick—to reject an inquiry. She said, within minutes of the judgment, there was nothing new to be learned and little the trial hadn’t covered—a sweeping conclusion for someone yet to read the ruling. Backtracking later, she offered a lame compromise: she’d meet with the families, along with representatives of CSIS and the RCMP, to explain all that has changed in the past 20 years. That strategy would have saved any number of governments and bureaucrats from a world of hurt. The people of Walkerton, Ont., could have chatted over tea about how their water system was now right as rain. And Paul Martin could have avoided the grief of the Gomery inquiry with a televised fireside chat about how the Quebec sponsorship scandal was the mistake of a past government. Lesson learned. No hard feelings.

There were perfectly reasonable excuses for not investigating the circumstances of the worst terrorist attack in Canadian history: the need not to interfere with the police investigation, the need to wait until lawsuits were settled, the need to let the court finish its deliberations. Similar circumstances applied in the U.S. after the 9/11 attacks, but an independent commission has already investigated the disaster and its report is a national bestseller. In Canada, the families don’t buy that it’s too late for an inquiry. “Enough of the stalling job,” says Sam Madon’s widow, Perviz, “just give it to us, for God’s sake.”

INTELLIGENCE LAPSES

The decision by CSIS to erase wiretap tapes of key suspects from the period before and after the bombing is bizarre in the extreme. Among the evidence wiped out are calls from Talwinder Singh Parmar, considered the likely mastermind of the plot, calls from the two men just acquitted, Malik and Bagri, and interviews with a key witness. A subsequent CSIS review of the action found the erasures were intended to protect personal privacy and confidentiality of sources—a finding so nonsensical it has only fanned ideas of a larger cover-up or conspiracy.

As troubling, security agencies all but ignored the virulent strain of Sikh militancy growing in Canada, the use of Sikh temples to recruit and finance extremists, and the rampant thuggery directed at moderates. Bagri’s infamous call for the revenge killing of50,000 Hindus, delivered before a screaming crowd at New York’s Madison Square Garden, shows the inflamed passions in the months before the bombing.

LESSONS UNLEARNED

If extremism is under control, why was it necessary to build a $7.2-million bombproof courtroom for the trial?

If security and policing agencies have learned their lessons, why was a potential key witness, Vancouver newspaper editor Tara Singh Hayer, shot and left paralyzed in 1988? And how is it that, 10 years later, Hayer was assassinated at his home—an eloquent warning to other potential witnesses?

Why is the key witness against Malik in hiding in a witness protection program if the troubles of the past are truly buried?

The Crown is considering an appeal. The RCMP has vowed the investigation will continue. But nothing stemming from last week’s ruling seems likely to generate fresh leads or inspire new witnesses to come forward. Few of the victims’ farmlies hold much hope for an appeal or new arrests.

Appended like an afterthought to the massive ruling is a seven-page list of the dead, including 80 children under 12 years old, and 20 entire families lost without a single spouse or child surviving to mourn their passing. For those left behind, the preceding 615 pages of legal argument and conclusion might as well be empty. They lack the one thing that may have offered solace: the names of those who believed the mythical state of Khalistan was worth the price of 331 innocent lives.

If there cannot be justice for them, it’s time for accountability.