Angry with the Canadian government's decision not to appeal the acquittal of the two men accused of the Kanishka bombing, friends and families of the 329 people who died aboard the Air-India aircraft on June 23, 1985 have stepped up their demand for a public inquiry into the case.
Under law, Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri (top), who were acquitted by British Columbia Supreme Court Judge Ian Bruce Josephson March 16, cannot be tried again in the case.
At a press briefing in Vancouver May 4, Geoffrey Gaul, spokesman for the British Columbia Attorney General's office, said the trial's judgment was profoundly fact-driven and reflected an outright rejection of the evidence of the central Crown witnesses.
Explaining the Crown's decision not to appeal the verdict, he said, 'An appellate court will not interfere with the findings unless there is a fundamental and significant legal error in the manner in which the trial judge approached the evidence.'
"We are shocked but not surprised that they are not going forward with the appeal. Obviously Judge Josephson did a very thorough job. The case of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service was based on circumstantial evidence alone," said Hari Venkatacharya, spokesman for the Air-India Victims Families Association.
"Sadly for Canadians there are still mass murderers hanging out somewhere. That is the biggest concern today. What else will they do on Canadian soil? Why is the government not taking action to hold a public inquiry immediately to get to the bottom of the case, to the bottom of the truth? What is the government afraid of?" Venkatacharya told India Abroad, the newspaper owned by rediff.com
Expressing disappointment at the lack of closure, Dave Hayer, member of the British Columbia legislature, told India Abroad, "We start losing confidence in our court system when you have witnesses here and they were not believed and the judge believed drug dealers."
"It shows our legal system is broken down when we have to deal with terrorist cases," Hayer said. "We have to have a public inquiry to ensure the system is fair for society as well as for victims, rather than the system protecting criminal elements."
Former Ontario premier Bob Rae, who has been appointed by Public Safety Minister Anne McLellan to examine and recommend options available to the government in the case, said the Crown's decision not to appeal would not affect his work.
'When the police commissioner says to me, there is an ongoing active investigation I take him at his word. Therefore, whatever process we create has to be in compliance with that,' Rae said.
Hayer said, "He (Rae) seems to be understanding what the problems are. I hope, along with many other people, he will recommend there should be a full enquiry; as what changes we have to make (in our legal system) so that the police can fully investigate these types of cases; what changes we have to do so that the Charter (of Rights and Freedoms) is not used to protect the criminal element than the victims and the society."
Hayer recommends that in such cases of mass murder, "there should be a bench of three to five judges rather than asking a single judge making up his or her mind alone."
"These are some questions they want to ask at the public inquiry. We all know the police, as well as the CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service, have bungled the case from the beginning."
The important question was "how to send a message that it (terrorism) will not happen again and no terrorist can think if Canada as an open place to kill other human beings and knowing they can get away because our (legal) system is now broken, any person after committing serious crime, can get away," he added.
The demand for a public inquiry has wide support.
The House of Commons adopted the Opposition Conservative MP Gurmant Grewal's motion seeking a public inquiry into the Air-India tragedy a few days ago. But to the dismay of the victims' families and the community, no South Asian MP from the ruling Liberal party voted for the motion, despite it being non-binding.
Venkatacharya said they have sent a letter to Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin, with a copy to Immigration Minister Joe Volpe, "again asking the prime minister to meet members of the Air-India Victims Families Association immediately to address the concerns and to immediately announce the public inquiry."
At a media round table April 25, Martin told India Abroad that if representatives of "the families want to meet with the prime minister of Canada, the prime minister of Canada will meet with them."
Venkatacharya said they have sent the letter to the prime minister's office so that they know his public commitment to "meet with us."
The argument that a public inquiry would interfere with the criminal investigation was no longer valid, Venkatacharya said.
"All of us have a great deal of respect for Bob Rae. My only concern, and concern of other families, is very simple: the prime minister delegated the responsibility to Public Safety Minister Ann McLellan and she has delegated that responsibility to Rae."
"It is passing the buck," Venkatacharya said. "What is the point in appointing Rae? Is it really to get to the truth or push off the responsibility to somebody else? What is his role: that he wants to get to the truth? Does he want to do what is right? We from the family members are very, very angry. We have no patience with her (McLellan)."
The Globe and Mail newspaper said Bagri has resumed work at a sawmill in Kamloops, British Columbia. Malik is a businessman with garment stores and other enterprises. Both are said to be quietly putting their lives back together.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police still has about a dozen officers working on the case. Despite the acquittal, their investigators plan to talk to Malik and Bagri and perhaps compel them to appear at an investigative hearing, said RCMP spokesman Sergeant John Ward.
The ability to compel someone with knowledge of a terrorism case to answer questions at such a hearing was granted in anti-terrorism legislation Canada's parliament passed after 9/11.
Sergeant Ward said despite the Crown's decision not to appeal the acquittals, the RCMP stands behind its witnesses and believes Malik and Bagri 'are two of the persons who were responsible' for the bombings. 'We respect the process. It should not be mistaken for concurrence on the acquittals,' he emphasised.
Gaul said they had made no mistake in going ahead with charges against Malik and Bagri. 'We stand by the fact that this was an appropriate prosecution,' he said.
In headline image, left, bottom: Eddie Madon, who lost his father on Air-India Flight 182, speaks at a news conference March 16, in Vancouver. His mother Perviz (centre) and sister Natasha (left) look on.
Right, bottom: Rattan Singh Kalgi holds up a photo of his daughter who was aboard the Kanishka.
Photographs: Don MacKinnon/Getty Images
Complete coverage: The Kanishka bombing
Headline image: Dominic Xavier