In a startling revelation, an inquiry has been told that the Canadian police was not informed about the recorded phone conversations of the main suspect in the 1985 Air India bombing. The evidence, which was subsequently erased, could have led to the conviction of some of the accused. The Kanishka flight bombing had claimed 329 lives; many of the victims were of Indian origin.
As the public inquiry resumed its hearing after a three-month break, a former member of the task force claimed that the central intelligence agency denied him access to the tapes even after he had learnt about them, almost a month after the bombing.
Former superintendent of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Lyman Henschel said senior officials from RCMP and Canadian Security Intelligence Service liaison held a top-level meeting shortly after the bombing to set up a task force.
He said that despite the presence of the CSIS official at the meeting, he was not told that the intelligence agency had been recording Talwinder Singh Parmar's phone conversations for three months before the disaster.
The revelation provides fresh evidence of the rocky relations between the two agencies, which have been blamed by many for the failure to prevent Canada's worst terror attack. "I was not made aware of the existence of intercept material relevant to the Air India investigation," Henschel said.
The retired Mountie said he left discussions with Randy Claxton, the head of CSIS in British Columbia, who is in ill health and isn't expected to testify, feeling assured CSIS would preserve key evidence related to the bombing.
Heschel's notes from the conversations indicate he was assured by Claxton that "any incriminating evidence from CSIS installations (the common jargon for wiretaps or electronic intercepts) will immediately be isolated and retained."
Air India commission lawyer Anil Kapoor showed the inquiry a memo from CSIS that was dated four days after the June 23, 1985 bombing. It referred to "sensitive installations" the agency would have to consider sharing. Henschel said nobody told him that the intercepts were linked to Air India or the issue of Sikh extremism.
CSIS has always maintained that there was nothing of value on the Parmar tapes and that erasing them was routine procedure. However, at the trial in 2003, the government conceded that it was a case of "unacceptable negligence."
A 1996 memo by the head of the RCMP's Air India task force, Inspector Gary Bass, now the force's deputy commissioner, said, "There is a strong likelihood that, had CSIS retained the tapes, a successful prosecution of at least some of the principal accused could have been undertaken."
While the tapes were destroyed, the transcriber notes survived, indicating Parmar had conversations with a contact in Germany about a plot to assassinate former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.
Parmar, the head of the militant group Babbar Khalsa, was arrested by the RCMP shortly after the attack but was released for lack of evidence. He later left Canada, and in 1992 he was shot dead by the Punjab police.
Tape erasures by CSIS were a significant issue in the trial of Inderjit Singh Reyat, the only person convicted in the bombing. A Parmar associate, he was found guilty on a reduced charge of manslaughter in 2003 and was sentenced to five-year imprisonment.
The Air India Flight 182 exploded near Ireland while on its way to Canada from India on July 24, 1985. The blast killed 329 people, including 280 Canadians.
The tape erasure issue also surfaced in the separate case of Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri, who were accused of playing senior roles in the bombing. They were acquitted after a trial worth $130-million in Vancouver two years ago, in a verdict that outraged the victims' families.