June 12, 2001
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Reyat condemned even before Kanishka trial: counsel

Suleman Din

RCMP Constable Cate Galliford borrowed a phrase from the media to describe the 1985 bombing of Air-India's Kanishka jet that killed all 329 people on board: "It was the largest mass murder in Canadian history."

The image of a mass murderer, though, brings to mind someone like Jeffery Dahmer or Richard Baumhammers. A sociopath, a loner, someone who would kill victims with a gun or an axe. Someone insane, with no reason to kill.

Inderjit Singh ReyatDid the Royal Canadian Mounted Police feel that those responsible for the bombing fit that caricature?

"Certainly, by placing a bomb on the aircraft, the method was quite impersonal," Galliford conceded. "But the result was the same. Three hundred twenty-nine people died when that plane exploded, and the dead included women and children."

Talk like this makes Kuldip Chaggar mad. Representing Inderjit Singh Reyat, one of the three suspects in the Kanishka bombing, Chaggar said it was impossible that his client would ever get a fair trial.

"One is innocent until proven guilty," he said. "But the Canadian authorities have done a masterful job in alienating the public and feeding violent stereotypes [of Sikhs]. They are not interested in a fair trial. They just want a conviction."

Reached at his law practice in Burnaby, British Columbia, Chaggar answered the phone with a drained, disappointed voice. He lost a crucial legal battle for Reyat last week, and the outcome was reported around the world.

After months of talks, Britain allowed Canada last Wednesday to charge Reyat with the Kanishka bombing. British permission was needed because, according to extradition protocol, one cannot be charged for crimes he was not extradited for.

Reyat had been extradited in 1989 from the United Kingdom on manslaughter charges, for a suitcase bomb that killed two baggage handlers at Japan's Narita airport. It went off an hour before the Air-India jumbo exploded off the coast of Ireland.

The 49-year-old electrician was tried in 1991 for making the bomb that was sent on a plane from Vancouver and blew up in Narita. Though authorities presumed that bomb and the one that downed Kanishka [which also departed from Vancouver] were linked, they did not have the evidence to prove it.

Reyat never conceded his guilt, though, and maintained his innocence throughout his time in prison. He also did not take up alleged offers of "cash, freedom, and immunity from future prosecution" to testify against others, his supporters say.

He was to have been a free man last Friday, the day he completed his entire ten-year sentence for the Narita bombing.

Instead, RCMP officers came early in the morning to Matsqui prison with his arrest warrant on conspiracy and murder charges connected with the Kanishka bombing.

Ajaib Singh BagriTwo other men, Ajaib Singh Bagri and Ripudaman Singh Malik, were arrested last October for the Kanishka and Narita bombings.

Chaggar contested the way Canada got permission from British Home Secretary Jack Straw to prosecute Reyat.

"This was a political decision," Chaggar declared. "I had made requests for full and frank disclosure with the home secretary. They wanted to know what evidence Canada had for these new charges, and we wanted to know as well.

"But we were never given any information. This decision was made behind closed doors, and the British never asked us for our opinion."

Chaggar compared the Kanishka case to similar ones, explaining that because of his ethnicity, Reyat got short shrift from the British government.

"The home secretary made his decision in a few months on scant evidence," he said. "It took 12 years to negotiate with the Libyans [regarding the Lockerbie bombing trial] and hundreds of assurances. What assurances was Reyat given?

"I'm angry because... I think if these individuals weren't Sikhs, it'd be different."

The mere mention of Reyat's arrest upset Chaggar. On the phone, his voice transformed into a torrent of shouted words, burning fatigue into indignation.

"He spent every minute of his sentence in jail, which is a rarity itself," Chaggar said. "And he's about to be released [Reyat was arrested two days before his term ended] and finally free to be with his family... and they come to him in prison to arrest him.

"They were never going to let him go. The RCMP and the Crown lied to Reyat, they lied to his family, to the British and the public. They have made a mockery of the justice system."

RCMP officials did not deny that they had their own plans for Reyat, while Crown prosecutors avoided directly responding to Chaggar's allegations.

Ripudaman Singh Malik"In October [at the time of the arrests of Bagri and Malik] we had named Reyat as a co-conspirator," RCMP Constable Cate Galliford explained. "We had fully intended on charging Reyat."

"We always intended to prosecute," said Geoffrey Gaul, British Columbia Crown Counsel. "I don't know what Reyat's lawyer will do now, but we will be prepared."

Gaul insisted that the Crown was focused on getting the trial for the three underway, beginning February 2002.

Such self-assuredness raises the ire of Chaggar, who said the case would just be a "show trial".

"Gaul is confident because he knows the suspects are in a corner," he said. "Reyat has been in jail for so long, he hasn't got the money to defend himself. Secretly, this is what the authorities have depended on. The Crown has spent so many millions, they have had 16 full-time prosecutors on the case for the past four years... this is not going to be a level playing field.

"What do they want him to do, go to court and say I surrender? If that's what they want, sentence the buggers now, because they don't stand a chance."

Chaggar said he would not be representing Reyat in court, reiterating what he had said in a previous interview with

"I cannot afford to represent Reyat without proper funds," Chaggar said. "He will not have a proper defence. There is no way I can do this... there is no one who can do this."

With a good chance that he will be in court, conducting his own trial, Reyat "will be forced to make compromises when he shouldn't", Chaggar said.

"They [the Air-India bombing suspects] will be forced to turn on each other," he said.

The attorneys for Malik and Bagri do not give interviews to the press. Bagri, 51, is a Sikh cleric and lumber mill worker, and Malik, 53, a real estate mogul and owner of a textiles import company.

It is not known whether they also face the same financial difficulties as Reyat. A report done recently investigated the supposed millions of Malik, while fundraisers have been held across Canada and the US for Bagri and Malik's legal defence fund.

Bagri is also charged in a 1988 assassination attempt on Tara Singh Hayer, who published the Indo-Canadian Times and was an outspoken critic of Sikh extremists. Hayer, who was crippled in that attack, was murdered in 1998 and police are still investigating the case.

Talwinder Singh ParmarBesides Reyat, the Crown also named Talwinder Singh Parmar as an unindicted co-conspirator. Parmar, who lived in British Columbia at the time of the bombings, was leader of the Khalistani separatist Babbar Khalsa. He was briefly arrested after the bombings, but was later freed and returned to India, where he was killed in a police encounter in October 1992.

Gaul said that Reyat's arrest "was an important step along a very long road". "Now we're looking towards the trial and a final judgment," he said, "and that day is coming."

Galliford echoed Gaul's comments, likening the Air-India investigation to the peeling of an onion: "There are so many layers involved, which is why this investigation has taken 15 years.

"We anticipate the possibility of further arrests, but as to possible suspects, I can't say."

And so, Chaggar is left to wage what he claims is a fruitless battle with the Canadian authorities, for however long he can. "I know the victims' families want justice; we don't want anything except justice," he said. "But do they want the truth, or a few convictions? The only way their suffering will end is with fairness."

Reyat was shocked to learn that the British gave Canada permission to charge him, Chaggar said. "He asked me, 'How is this possible? We had such faith in the British, that they would never make closed-door deals.'

"But despite what's been done to him, Reyat has shown absolute patience and humility," he continued. "You can either have prison walls contain you, or you can make them your sanctuary. You can either think you are imprisoned, or your mind can be free."

UK lets Canada charge Kanishka bombing suspect
Ultra-secure courtroom for Kanishka trial
Kanishka bombing suspect denied bail again
Lockerbie, Kanishka lawyers meet
Third suspect in Kanishka bombing held
Canadian police arrest 2 men for Kanishka bombing

The Kanishka Bombing: The progress of the case

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