Probe into AI bombing starts at slow pace

Updated on May 25, 2007 02:55 PM IST
A former police intelligence officer was frustrated with how long it took for the investigation into the June 1985 Air India bombing to get started.
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PTI | By, Toronto

Canadian police started investigating the 1985 Air India bombing at a slow pace with key Sikh suspects being questioned by investigators only three weeks after the terror act, a former police intelligence officer has said.

Axel Hovbrender, who is now a superintendent with the Vancouver police, testified before the inquiry commission that he was frustrated with how long it took for the police investigation into the June 1985 Air India bombing to get started.

He said the task force investigation into the bombing, which claimed 329 lives, was like an impressive battleship that is slow to get going.

"Remembering back, it took about two or three weeks for them to do the things that I thought should have been done in the first week. And that was to interview in the first week individuals who most of us knew or who were in the intelligence field believed were responsible for that tragic act," Hovbrender recalled.

"In the initial phases, I was feeling frustrated in relation to the lack - my perception - of any sort of movement in any sort of enforcement activity against those individuals."

The inquiry has already heard plenty of evidence of poor intelligence work in tracking Sikh extremists before the bombing. But this was the first time Commissioner John Major has heard about the flawed investigation after the tragedy.

As a member of the Vancouver Integrated Intelligence Unit in 1985, Hovbrender worked closely with the RCMP and the newly formed Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

Based on information gathered to that time, Hovbrender said that in early-1985, he put together a report on key Sikh extremists.

When the bombing occurred in late June, Hovbrender said he briefed investigators and senior police managers on the "main players" who, he believed, were responsible for the bombing.

Noting strained relations between the two federal agencies, Hovbrender said he believed that he acted as "a conduit" between the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS).

The officer also told the inquiry that, in retrospect, more resources should have been used, not only by CSIS but by all law enforcement agencies to shut down the Sikh extremists.

Earlier in the day, the inquiry heard about a warning from a former CSIS officer only two weeks before the bombing, pointing out an "almost eerie" lack of activity among Sikh extremists and activists.

Just before heading off on a two-week sailing holiday, Ray Kobzey wrote a June 8, 1985 internal memo about the relative silence among Sikh activists in British Columbia - only days after a surveillance unit on Vancouver Island misidentified the sound of a test bomb as simple gunfire.

Kobzey, who has extensive expertise in explosives, said he would not have made the same mistake about the sound of a test bomb explosion.

Moreover, if the explosion had been properly identified in the surveillance report, the spy agency and police would likely have given the growing terrorist threat a higher priority, he said.

The former spy, who is now with the RCMP in Nanaimo, BC, added that he would not have gone on holiday had he known about the test bomb.

Kobzey also testified that he had to lobby hard for two months before the spy service finally agreed to put Sikh activist Talwinder Singh Parmar under surveillance in early June 1985, only weeks before the bombing.

Earlier, the inquiry was told that it took Kobzey five months to obtain a warrant to wiretap Parmar's conversations - something that ended one day before the bombing.

Kobzey said part of his problem in making the surveillance a priority was because the agency at the time still fixated on Cold War targets such as suspected Soviet spies. The CSIS officer first asked that Parmar be tailed in April, but it wasn't until early June that he got the green light.

On June 4, 1985, two agents followed Parmar and a young man misidentified as his son to the residence of Inderjit Singh Reyat in a relatively isolated area in Duncan, British Columbia.

The agents heard a loud explosion, which they incorrectly reported came from a firearm. It was only in the week after the bombing that RCMP officers returned to the Duncan woods to properly investigate and find the remnants of the test bomb, Kobzey added.

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