March 18, 2005
A Canadian judge has cleared two Sikh militants of involvement in the 1985 bombing of an Air India jetliner off the coast of Ireland, history's deadliest bombing of a civilian aircraft.
Shocked families of the 329 victims of the bombing called the ruling devastating and urged the Canadian Government to establish a public inquiry into the crime and how it was investigated.
In the British Columbia Supreme Court, Judge Bruce Ian Josephson found Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri not guilty of murder and conspiracy in connection with the Air India bombing as well as a related explosion at Tokyo's Narita airport that killed two people.
Judge Josephson ruled the testimony against the two men was not credible.
Members of the victims' families wept in the courtroom as the judge read the verdicts following an epic, 19-month trial. Mr Malik, 58, and Mr Bagri, 55, smiled at their family members in court when the hearing ended.
Judge Josephson, who heard 115 witnesses during one of the most complicated and costly cases in Canadian history, called the bombing "fanaticism at its basest and most inhumane level" and agreed the devices that exploded off the Irish coast and in Japan probably originated in Vancouver.
AdvertisementBut he said he could not believe key prosecution witnesses who testified that Mr Malik, a wealthy Vancouver businessman, and Mr Bagri, a sawmill worker and Sikh priest, had admitted their roles in the plot. The judge ruled that justice would not be served if there was any doubt about the defendants' guilt.
More than 70 relatives of the bombing victims came from around the world to hear the verdict, delivered in a specially built $C7.4 million ($7.7 million) high-security court.
"I cannot believe the verdict. All those witnesses would not have come forward and risked their lives. All those poor families. Not in a million years did I think this could happen," said Jeanne Bakermans, a former Canadian Pacific Airlines ticket agent and a witness in the case.
Prosecutors accused the men of seeking revenge for the Indian Army's storming of Sikhism's holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in the city of Amritsar, in 1984. That operation, aimed at evicting militants in the temple, left hundreds of people dead. The Indian-born Sikh separatists living in Canada were charged with planning to destroy two aircraft simultaneously. One bomb destroyed flight 182 while it was on its way from Canada to India, via London, on June 23, 1985. The other exploded 54 minutes earlier in baggage being transferred at Narita to Air India flight 301.
Mr Malik and Mr Bagri were arrested in October 2000.
The defence acknowledged there may have been a conspiracy, but denied Mr Bagri and Mr Malik were part of it.
The case was made difficult by problems in the long investigation, including the erasure of wiretaps of the suspects before and after the Air India explosions.
Mr Malik and Mr Bagri were originally scheduled to be tried with Inderjit Singh Reyat, who was accused of helping to make the bombs, but he pleaded guilty to a reduced charge before the trial began. Reyat was called as a witness, but denied knowing who asked him to assist with the bombs.
The judge referred to Reyat as "an unmitigated liar," whose testimony "bordered on the absurd".
The prosecution has not decided whether to appeal.