VANCOUVER, B.C., March 16 -- A judge acquitted two Canadian Sikhs on Wednesday of engineering a plan to put bombs on Air India flights 20 years ago, leaving unanswered who was responsible for Canada's worst mass killing and the largest act of air terrorism before Sept. 11, 2001.
Ending a four-year case, the judge found that the assortment of former girlfriends, paid informers and fallen-out business partners central to the prosecution were not credible enough to convict a millionaire Vancouver businessman and a Sikh activist of murder. His finding shocked victims' family members.
Ripudaman Singh Malik, a millionaire businessman, is flanked by a sheriff and another man as he is escorted to a car outside the court in Vancouver after the acquittals.
(Chuck Stoody -- AP)
"We are devastated that the true perpetrators of this crime are free today," said Ed Madon, who was 8 when Flight 182 exploded over the Atlantic Ocean, killing his father and 328 others aboard. "The Canadian justice system has failed us."
The verdict was a blow to Canada's efforts to show that it can deal with imported political passions simmering within the country's immigrant communities. Authorities asserted that angry Sikhs in British Columbia planted the bombs in retaliation for the Indian government's attack on a Sikh temple in Punjab state in 1984.
One bomb brought down Flight 182, a Boeing 747, as it neared the coast of Ireland on June 23, 1985. The second exploded in luggage being transferred to an Air India flight at Tokyo's airport, killing two baggage handlers. In both cases, the bombs were in bags loaded onto flights out of Canada that connected to Air India flights.
After years of what victims' families termed official neglect, authorities belatedly mounted the most complex and costly investigation in the country's history. But it failed to crack the secrecy among the immigrant community. Provincial court Justice Ian Bruce Josephson upheld much of the government's theory about the crimes but ruled that investigators had not proven beyond a reasonable doubt who carried them out.
"We are very disappointed today," said Sgt. John Ward of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, adding: "We are still investigating this matter. We will not stop."
Family members said that because of the inconclusive verdict, a public inquiry is now needed as to who carried out the terrorist acts and why the fledgling Canadian Security Intelligence Service failed to pursue the case 20 years ago.
"Only a public inquiry can investigate the failures of the system," said Susheel Gupta, who was 12 when his mother was killed. "This was murder, pure and simple. If the murder of 329 people doesn't deserve a public inquiry, what does?"
Investigators had a prime suspect under surveillance before the bombings. But reports that came out 19 years later showed that they often lost track of the suspect, ended surveillance hours before the bombs were placed, and erased wiretapped conversations that could have led to earlier arrests.
"This sends the message that someone can come into Canada, set bombs on planes and kill people, and get away with it," said Dave Hayer, a provincial legislator. His father, a Canadian Sikh journalist who condemned the bombings, was assassinated in 1998, reportedly by Sikh radicals.
The bombings were a chilling harbinger of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. In Canada, they provoked similar surprise that foreign conflicts could bring violence to distant, relatively secure countries, and similar postmortem findings that investigators had missed warnings and clues before the attacks.
"It should have been a wake-up call," said Reg Whitaker, a political scientist at the University of Victoria. The Air India bombings were among the first to feature the kinds of threats from small, shadowy radical groups that now face the world, he said.
"In the 1980s, the world was still in the Cold War. We were still looking for Russian networks," he said. "Terrorism was not identified as it is now, in terms of an attack on the homeland that could reach into the lives of everyday people."