Air India bombing: Canada's saga continues

TORONTO, Canada — The only man ever convicted in the worst massacre in Canadian history has been sent back to prison — the latest chapter in a saga that has haunted this country for a quarter century.

Inderjit Singh Reyat was sentenced in a Vancouver courtroom on Friday to nine years for lying in the trial of two men charged with murder in the bombing of Air India flight 182. The two men, Sikh businessmen from Vancouver, were acquitted in 2005.

The Air India flight — from Montreal to Bombay — exploded over the Atlantic Ocean on June 23, 1985, killing 329 people, most of them Canadians of Indian descent. Hours earlier, another suitcase bomb being transferred to an Air India flight exploded in Tokyo’s Narita airport, killing two baggage handlers. Both bombs originated in Vancouver.

Reyat, a 58-year-old mechanic and Canadian citizen, initially served 10 years for his role in the plot that killed the Tokyo baggage handlers. Then he received a controversial five-year sentence in exchange for his testimony in the 2005 trial and an admission he helped build the bomb for flight 182.

The years since the attacks have been marked by bungled police investigations, unsuccessful trials, families of victims treated callously by successive federal governments, and a government-appointed commission of inquiry that concluded the bombing could have been prevented.

“Various agencies of government had extremely important pieces of information that, taken together, would have led a competent analyst to conclude that Flight 182 was in danger of being bombed by known Sikh extremists,” noted the commission’s report last June, “Air India Flight 182, A Canadian Tragedy.”

The commission, headed by former Supreme Court Justice John Major, conducted a four-year inquiry and produced a scathing, five-volume report. It found that Canada’s spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and the national police force, the RCMP, were more interested in protecting turf than sharing information about the terrorist threat.

Police have long maintained that the plot was hatched in British Columbia as revenge for India’s deadly storming of Sikhism’s Golden Temple in Amritsar in 1984. By the fall of that year, CSIS had identified Talwinder Singh Parmar as the most dangerous Sikh in Canada. He was wanted in India for the murder of two Indian police officers. (He died in India in 1992. Indian authorities say it was in a shootout with police, but the RCMP was told it was while he was in police custody.)

In the fall of 1984, the RCMP received intelligence that Sikh extremists were planning to bomb an Air India flight. They didn’t tell CSIS.

By March 1985, CSIS had Parmar under electronic surveillance. But backlogs in translating wiretap transcripts meant CSIS agents didn’t get summaries of Parmar’s conversations until after the bombing.

On June 1 that year, Air India’s chief security manager in Bombay sent a telex to Air India offices worldwide. It warned of “the likelihood of sabotage attempts being undertaken by Sikh extremists by placing time/delay devices etc. in the aircraft or registered baggage.” Air India’s Toronto office gave the telex to the RCMP. The RCMP did not pass it onto CSIS.

On June 4, CSIS agents followed Parmar, Reyat and an unidentified third man into a wooded area on Vancouver Island. The agents heard a noise they identified as a shotgun blast and assumed the men were planning an armed assault or assassination. In fact, the sound came from a detonation to test the bomb system Parmar was building. CSIS did not share the blast information with the appropriate RCMP units, the commission found.

Surveillance was called off on the day of the bombing so that the agents could be redirected to “follow a Cold War target,” the commission reported.

Then, on June 12, someone who attended a meeting of Sikh extremists told the RCMP that a radical leader informed the meeting that an attack would occur in two weeks. The RCMP did not share the information with CSIS.

The commission also found a litany of transportation security failures the day of the bombing, including the fact that the suitcase bomb that downed Air India was allowed on the plane even though the passenger who checked it never boarded.

After the bombing, the RCMP mishandled trial witnesses and overlooked important leads before shelving the investigation for years. The federal government, meanwhile, was more concerned with protecting itself against liability than in helping the families of victims, the commission reported. The government ordered officials not to refer to the attack as a “bombing,” and cabinet ministers refused to meet family representatives for more than a decade.

Last June, Prime Minister Stephen Harper officially apologized for the “institutional failings of 25 years ago and the treatment of the victim’s families thereafter.” The government has also promised compensation.

Last December, in its official response to the Major commission’s 64 recommendations, the government was widely criticized for being vague about beefing up airport security, and for rejecting the establishment of a national security “czar,” who would ensure that CSIS and the RCMP coordinate their efforts.

Many fear the security gaps that resulted in the Air India bombing still exist.