A-I verdict leaves many clueless

PTI | ByGurmukh Singh, Vancouver
Mar 17, 2005 11:56 AM IST

Hushed silence fell as judge pronounced the verdict, writes Gurmukh Singh.

"Shocking" and "stunning" were the two words that most people present in the jampacked British Columbia Supreme Court in Vancouver uttered when Judge Ian Bruce Josephson acquitted the local multimillionaire Ripduman Singh Malik and preacher Ajaib Singh Bagri in the Air-India Kanishka case.

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The Canadian media brigade, legal pundits and people were left clueless, as none had predicted this outcome of the longest trial in Canadian history.

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In the worst mass murder in aviation history before 9/11 terror strikes, 329 passengers were killed when the Kanishka flight 182 was blown apart off the Irish coast on June 23, 1985.

About 50 minutes earlier, two baggage handlers were killed by blast in Japan's Narita airport, while loading the luggage on to the Air India flight 301 bound for India.

The prosecution had accused the two men of masterminding the bomb plot to avenge the Indian army attack on the Golden Temple in Amirtsar in June 1984.

Malik and Bagri were arrested four years ago and charged with first-degree murder and conspiracy to bring down the planes.

Delivering his verdict in the $7.2-million specially erected courtroom, Justice Ian Bruce Josephson found Malik and Bagri not guilty on all eight charges, saying there was little hard evidence against the two and that the testimonies of the witnesses was not credible.

Hushed silence fell as the judge pronounced the verdict.

The families of Malik and Bagri looked at each other and said "Thank God" while the families of the victims broke into sobs and tears.

Though the judge accepted the prosecution's theory that there was a plot to blow up Air India flights by planting bombs in suitcases that were loaded at Vancouver, he said the testimony of the witnesses produced by the Crown was inconsistent and lacked credibility.

The judge made references to the testimony of Malik's former female employee-cum-lover who had told the court that Malik had confessed to her about bringing down the plane and that she "still" loved Malik.

The judge said the love theory was concocted by her to raise her credibility. The woman was fired by Malik.

According to the woman, Malik had first confessed to her "we had Air India crash. Nobody, I mean nobody, can do anything. It is all for Sikhism" and later told her in 1997 that it was he (Malik) who he had bought air tickets to load the bombs in suitcases on to a plane in Vancouver.

Rejecting her testimony, the judge said tersely, "Either this mature, intelligent and strong-willed person has abandoned all she believes in because of overwhelming and unreasoning emotions of the heart, or she is misleading the court by claiming to be (Malik's) loving confidante in an attempt to blunt the inevitable credibility attack based on animus towards Mr Malik.''

Wondering why it took two other witnesses -- who testified that Malik had asked them to take bombs to Vancouver airport -- so long to come out, the judge rejected their testimonies, saying one turned against Malik after his financial tie-up with him soured and with the other it seemed 'implausible' he would have been trusted by Malik.

About the two major witnesses against Bagri, the judge said that his American acquaintance who was paid $300,000 by the RCMP to testify, lacked credibility as he was motivated by self-interest.

The judge referred to the acquaintance's long history with the FBI to gain US immigration and added that the man had tried to extract more money from the RCMP on the eve of his testimony.

The other witness, a woman who confessed to the secret service that Bagri had approached her the night before the blast and asked to borrow her car to take bombs to the airport, could not trusted for her incoherency and memory lapses in her confessions, the judge said.

"The proof of Mr Bagri's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt rests upon hearsay statements for which there is no reliable confirmatory evidence...These statements were provided on a confidential basis and not under oath by a person who falsely claimed loss of memory when testifying," the judge concluded.

Inderjit Singh Reyat, the third accused, had pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the Kanishka blast and got 10 years in jail.

He was sentenced for five more years for his role in the Narita blast. 

However, according to the prosecution, Talwinder Singh Parmar was the brain behind the plot to blow up Air India.

He was killed in an encounter with the police in Punjab in October 1992.

After the verdict, Malik and Bagri walked away free after their four-year detention.

Bagri met the press briefly where his daughter Inderdip Kaur read a prepared statement, saying, "The past four-and-a-half years have been very difficult for me and my family. I have accused of horrendous crimes, and imprisoned for four years.

In 1985, when these terrible events occurred, I was a passionate advocate for an independent homeland for the Sikh people.

But I want to repeat publicly today what I have told the authorities numerous times since 1985 that I had absolutely no involvement in any of these criminal activities.''

Referring to the victims of the crash, Bagri's statement said, "The loss of so many innocent lives resulting from these events is an enormous tragedy. It has brought unspeakable suffering to the families and friends of those who died."

"It has also caused deep divisions within the Sikh community. It is my hope that the completion of the legal proceedings will now allow healing to begin and will encourage our community to come together.''

When a journalist asked whether he still wanted Khalistan and kill 50,000 Hindus — as he had said in a Madison Garden Square speech in 1984 — Bagri's lawyers pulled him away.

Malik didn't speak to the media as he walked out of the court to be driven away in his Mercedes.

The longest case in this country's legal history has cost Canadian citizens $130 million.

The RCMP investigations alone cost more than $45 million.

Interestingly, the erasing of the tapes of conversation of Parmar with Bagri by the Canadian Secret Intelligence Services (CSIS), which could have nailed Bagri, came in for severe criticism by the judge.

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