For Canada's Police Agencies, 'A Multidimensional Failure'
Description: Michael Byers explains the difficulties of investigating terrorism conspiracies.
Date: 17 March 2005
Author: Doug Struck
Source: The Washington Post, A20
VANCOUVER, B.C., March 17 -- In the end, the judge did not believe her. The woman on the witness stand said she loved Ripudaman Singh Malik so much that she had to identify him as the linchpin of a terrorist act.
It was all a charade, concluded Ian Bruce Josephson, a British Columbia Supreme Court justice, meant to hide her malice toward the accused man who had spurned her.
With that, Josephson rejected what experts consider an astonishingly flimsy case against Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri, both Canadian Sikhs, and acquitted them. They had been charged with planting bombs intended for Air India planes, one of which brought down Flight 182 off the coast of Ireland on June 23, 1985, killing 329 people. The other bomb killed two baggage handlers in Tokyo.
Canadian law enforcement agencies were left reeling after the acquittals Wednesday. On Thursday, government officials were trying to answer how the country's longest, most extensive and most costly investigation could have failed so spectacularly.
"The government needs to be held accountable for this betrayal to us," said Lata Pada, whose husband and two daughters were aboard the Boeing 747 on Flight 182. "There were severe and unforgivable lapses in the system that need to be investigated."
Legal analysts said the government would probably face an embarrassing official inquiry.
"We had a multidimensional failure here," involving intelligence and law enforcement agencies, federal ministers, Parliament members and prosecutors, said Stuart Farson, who directed research for an intelligence oversight committee established by Parliament that saw problems in the Air India case 15 years ago. No matter, "we were told not to touch Air India," he said.
There were well-publicized rumors -- even published hints -- in Vancouver's Indian community about who was involved in the bombings shortly after they occurred. But the difficulties and political sensitivities of carrying out an investigation in the Sikh community stalled action until the late 1990s. By then, political pressure finally forced prosecutors and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to go ahead with a weak case, according to critics.
"The RCMP kept building up the hopes of the victims. They kept saying they had a very strong case. People expected something, but when it came down, they had only circumstantial and hearsay evidence," said Schinder Purewal, a political science professor at Kwantlen University College who is in close touch with the families of the victims.
The prosecution alleged that Malik, a Vancouver millionaire, made the airline reservations that were used to check in the bomb-laden bags. The chief witness against him was a 43-year-old woman who worked for him from 1992 to 1997. Her identity is concealed by a government witness-protection program.
She presented emotional testimony saying Malik had twice confessed to her more than a decade after the bombings. Even though Malik fired her, suspecting she was a police spy, she still loved him, she said in tearful testimony. She appealed to him from the witness stand to believe her.
Josephson did not accept her testimony. In his decision Wednesday, he suggested she was "misleading the court to believe she is a loving confidante" and said her testimony "edges toward incredulity."
Purewal said the acquittal was predictable.
"If you are building your whole case -- in which 331 people died, a mass murder unprecedented in history, a major aviation disaster -- on one woman who is inconsistent and unreliable, you have to ask what the hell the RCMP was doing," he said.
The prosecution's other witnesses were no more believable, Josephson said. One was a man who was furious with Malik over a business deal and went to police 12 years after the bombing, just days after threatening to ruin Malik. The testimony of another witness, who said Malik solicited him to carry a bomb-laden bag, was "impossible," the judge said.
In acquitting Bagri, Malik's co-defendant, a preacher and sawmill worker, the judge said a prosecution witness who was paid $300,000 for his testimony was "driven by self-interest."
"We knew from the outset of this prosecution, it would be a complex and challenging one," said the leader of the prosecuting team, Geoffrey Gaul, who defended the decision to press forward with what evidence the government had. "We were satisfied we had a case. Was it a slam-dunk case? No."
Feuding between the RCMP and the then-newly organized Canadian Security Intelligence Service marred the investigation from the beginning. CSIS staff members erased documents, withdrew surveillance of a key figure in the alleged conspiracy hours before the bombs were set and did not tell the RCMP, according to government investigative reports disclosed last year.
The case showed the difficulties of investigating terrorism conspiracies, said Michael Byers, a professor of law at the University of British Columbia.
"The nature of a conspiracy is that it takes place covertly. It doesn't involve persons visibly engaged in a physical act," he said. "You are talking about a crime that occurs in a diaspora community that is very tightly knit and not very open to police investigations."
He said that the Air India case was in a "pre-9/11 world" and that an official inquiry would likely show only that the Canadian investigating agencies have changed significantly.
"We now know it's difficult," Byers said. "We know that penetrating diaspora communities is more important than we thought it was, and working with diaspora communities . . . we get that now."
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