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Old wounds healing for Indo-Canadians as Air India verdict nears


VANCOUVER, March 15, 2005:
Canadian Press

Amid the whispered rumours and not-so-hushed conversations about who was involved in the Air India bombings, a growing distrust of the justice system took hold in the Indo-Canadian community.

Five years, 10 years, then 15 years passed before the RCMP charged two men suspected in twin bombings that killed 331 people.

On Wednesday, after 233 trial days, a B.C. Supreme Court judge will deliver the verdicts in the case against Ripudaman Singh Malik, 58, and Ajaib Singh Bagri, 55.

They both face eight charges, including first-degree murder, attempted murder and conspiracy in the bombings.

Air India Flight 182, a Boeing 747, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Ireland on June 23, 1985, killing all 329 passengers and crew who had left for Mumbai via Toronto.

Less than an hour earlier, two baggage handlers at Tokyo's Narita airport were killed while loading a suitcase onto another Air India flight that was the intended target of the bomb.

Investigators suspected sabotage of India's national airline by B.C.-based Sikh extremists bent on seeking revenge against the Indian government.

While families were relieved when charges were finally laid in October 2000, they had grown weary of waiting and wondered when the suspects would ever face a court of law.

Some in the community say police could have moved faster to make arrests while others claim that would have been the case if the victims hadn't been Indo-Canadians.

A prominent member of the community, who did not wish to be named, said people became disillusioned when so much time went by without charges.

"When it first happened there was shock and when nothing was happening it was like . . . 'it's because (the victims) weren't whites nobody's taking care of it,' " she said.

Over the years, the Air India bombing story seemed to lose the attention of many media outlets, she said.

"Instead of all these brown faces, if white faces had perished we would have heard about it over and over again."

Distrust of police was at an all-time high when the Canadian Security Intelligence Service erased tapes of Air India surveillance, which led people to believe justice would never come, the woman said.

"There was a lot of heartache and pain for the families and there was a time when everybody forgot about (the case)."

But healing of old wounds in the community started when the arrests were made five years ago, she said.

"I think people needed the names (of the accused) . . . to be out in the open so that people felt they were vindicated in a way and that the justice system was on top of everything."

Over the years, when police seemed to forget the Air India case, many in the Indo-Canadian community believed justice for the families would be denied, said Sarwan Singh Randhawa of the Ross Street Sikh Temple.

"After so many years of nothing happening, some people were saying police just didn't have any evidence and some very powerful people were going to get away with it," Randhawa said.

"Nobody wanted to speak out and people were scared."

Sgt. John Ward, who heads the RCMP's Air India task force, said fear kept people from talking and made the investigation more challenging.

"Within the community there was a lot of fear at the time as there were so many unknowns that caused people to be very, very cautious and leery about saying anything," Ward said.

He said the logistics of the probe, such as gathering evidence from the ocean floor so experts could reconstruct part of the plane, were daunting and had never before been attempted.

"The reality is this is the longest-running investigation in Canadian history, the most complex and the one that probably pushed our limits, where we had to be so innovative and so farsighted to be able to complete this investigation," Ward said.

"This was the first time we had to deal with homicide on such a scale."

Much has changed as the Indo-Canadian community and police have forged a better understanding, he said.

"We're unbelievably thankful to the families of the victims for their patience because it has been trying, it has been a long time."

Ward said the Mounties are continuing their global investigation of the Air India case and the verdict is just one more step in that probe.

Geoffrey Gaul, spokesman for the Crown, said he understands the frustrations of the families but the massive trial moved along faster than expected because defence and Crown lawyers agreed on a list of facts early on.

That meant only 88 people testified for the Crown - instead of the 1,000 people who had been expected to take the stand, he said.

"There is no other trial in Canadian jurisdiction that you can compare this trial to, in the sense of the magnitude of the evidence that needed to be prepared and presented in court."

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