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'Canada's justice system has failed us'

"Its flaws were revealed," the judge, heading an official inquiry, has said.

india Updated: Jun 22, 2006 10:06 IST

Major flaws in Canada's criminal justice system were revealed by the bombing of an Air-India airliner in 1985 that killed 329 people, the judge heading an official inquiry into the attack said on Wednesday as the inquiry opened.

Air India Flight 182, originating in Canada, blew up off the Atlantic coast of Ireland on June 23, 1985, in what was the deadliest ever bombing of a passenger airliner. A bomb intended to bring down a second Air India flight exploded almost simultaneously at Tokyo's Narita airport, killing two people.

The initial Canadian criminal investigation into the attacks was marked by controversy, including charges that infighting between various branches of the justice system had led to the destruction of potentially key evidence.

Two men eventually went on trial for the bombings but were found not guilty last year after the judge ruled that prosecutors had failed to prove their case.

"To conclude only that the criminal justice system has to date failed the families of Air India victims falls short of the problem. It failed all Canadians. The system failed all Canadians," said retired Supreme Court justice John Major, who is leading the inquiry.

"The personal losses and unspeakable tragedies are the most immediate and visible aspect of our loss. The systemic weaknesses that have been identified are less visible, but potentially as fatal as what happened," he wrote in a opening statement.

Major will not be able to find guilt or say who he thinks was responsible for the blast. Investigators allege the bombings were carried out by Sikh separatists furious at the Indian government for its bloody 1984 storming of the Sikh Golden Temple in the city of Amritsar.

Representatives of about 80 families of victims attended the formal opening of the inquiry, which is being held in Ottawa's old city hall. Hearings will start on Sept 25 and Major is due to issue his final report in September 2007.

"I think we need some answers as to what went wrong. What were the procedures in place?" said Lata Pada, who lost her husband and two daughters when the plane went down.

"It is our hope that it will be viewed ... in fact as the world's worst case of aviation terrorism prior to (the) Sept 11 (suicide attacks). I think that was forgotten for a very long time," she told reporters.

The inquiry was launched by the Conservative government, which took power on Jan 23 this year. The previous Liberal administration -- which had held power since late 1993 -- said for years it was reluctant to open a full probe because it could interfere with the criminal investigation.

Major will examine whether security lapses that allowed the 1985 bombings have been fixed, and if the bad relations between police and Canada's spy agency at the time have improved.

He will also examine "the extent to which potential threats posed by Sikh terrorism prior to 1985 have been resolved" and "whether Canada's existing legal framework provides adequate constraints on terrorist financing".

Some relatives shed tears before entering the room. One man had a photo of a young woman pinned to his lapel.

Everyone present sat in silence for about eight minutes as the names of the 329 victims scrolled up on a screen.

"Many family members lobbied for 21 years for an inquiry and we're happy to see that it's finally occurring," said Susheel Gupta, who was 12 when his mother died.

"I don't know if any families will get closure. They've lost their loved ones. I grew up without a mother and I think about her every day."