Air India inquiry gets under way

Ron Albertson, the Hamilton Spectator

Esther Venketeswaran holds an old photo of her family. Her father, Trichur, died in the Air India bombing and Esther was the last family member to see him alive before he boarded the aircraft.

Families of Air India victims fear that the inquiry will only manage to stir up painful memories

By Paul Legall
The Hamilton Spectator(Jun 21, 2006)

Nearly 80 relatives of the victims are expected in Ottawa today for the opening of a judicial inquiry into the 21-year-old downing of Air India Flight 182.

That terrorist bombing claimed the lives of 329 people when the plane exploded and fell into the sea off the coast of southwest Ireland.

Two others died in another blast at Tokyo's Narita airport.

Many of the main players in the bombings had connections to the southern Ontario Sikh community. They had ties to a Sikh temple outside Hamilton where they spoke against the Indian government and raised funds for their cause.

In 1986, alleged Air India mastermind Talwinder Singh Parmar and accused aircraft bomber Ajaib Singh Bagri were arrested in Hamilton with several local Sikhs and charged with plotting terrorist acts in India.

Like the Air India and Narita blasts, the local plot was part of a broader campaign by extremists to avenge the Indian army's attack on the Golden Temple in 1984.

The Hamilton-related charges were all dropped in 1987 after the Crown's office chose not to reveal a confidential informant. But Bagri was later charged in the two bombings, which were planned and executed in British Columbia.

He and Ripudaman Singh Malik were acquitted of the attacks last year.

A charismatic Sikh leader, Parmar is generally recognized as the man behind the conspiracy. The Canadian spy agency had him under surveillance even before the Air India attacks. But he escaped from Canada before he could be charged and was killed in a shootout with Indian police in 1992.

Families of the victims were furious when they saw the alleged B.C. plotters walk last year.

It didn't help to hear the investigation had been compromised by bungling, the destruction of wiretaps and rivalry between the RCMP and the Canadian Intelligence Security Service (CSIS).

Retired Supreme Court justice John Major -- who will open the inquiry today -- said the families have told him that they'll be content if they can believe those mistakes won't happen again.

Several of those families are still living in the Hamilton area. But some -- like Esther Venketeswaran -- are afraid the inquiry will only stir up painful memories and do little to correct the problems that plagued the investigation.

She was the last member of her family to see her 45-year-old father alive as he was about to board the plane to his native India.

The 14-year-old girl, whose family was living in Beamsville at the time, choked back tears as she buried her face in Trichur Venketeswaran's chest as they said farewell.

Trichur -- an electrical engineer at Atomic Energy of Canada Limited -- was leaving to visit his family and was expected back in three weeks. But Esther had an uncanny sense she'd never see him again.

"I felt deeply, an overwhelming sense of sadness, and told him, 'I'll miss you when you're gone,'" she recalled 21 years later. "It was like God was preparing me (for that tragedy that was about to come.)"

Venketeswaran related her story to The Hamilton Spectator last month after the Air India inquiry was announced. But she didn't consider it good news. She wants to exorcise the past, rather than relive it, and start building her future.

She said the surviving members of her family, including her mother, Ann, and brother David, 34, have suffered financially as well as emotionally. She believes the millions the inquiry will cost would be better spent as compensation for victims' families.

The only benefit she can see from an inquiry is that it would serve as a wake-up call that terrorist groups still operate in Canada and will strike again.

"It's not a matter of if, but when."

Shortly after she spoke with The Spectator, police arrested 17 Muslim men and youths on charges of preparing a terrorist attack in C anada.

Esther is now 35. It took her nearly 21 years to learn the details of the plot that claimed her father on June 23, 1985.

A gentle man who avoided conflict, Trichur died simply because he was a passenger in a jumbo jet carrying mostly Hindu Indians.

The killers were members of a terrorist group known as the Babbar Khalsa. The extremist sect -- now banned in Canada -- was striving to establish an independent Sikh state in the Punjab.

Canadian Babbar Khalsa members, including Parmar, are alleged to have hatched the Flight 182 plot after hundreds of fellow Sikhs were killed when the Indian army stormed the Golden Temple in 1984.

The temple in Amritsar is the holiest Sikh shrine and the plotters swore revenge against the Indian government and prime minister Indira Gandhi, as well as Hindus in general.

Parmar and Bagri are the only connection between the Air India bombing and the short-lived charges laid in Hamilton.

Parmar spent several months in the Barton Street jail before the Crown pulled the charges in the spring of 1987.

While in prison, Parmar gave his only media interview to a reporter from the Globe and Mail. He denied all the allegations against him and accused the Indian government of causing problems for him in Canada.

The case against the accused Air India bombers collapsed last year in Vancouver when Bagri and Malik were acquitted.

Just months before that, Venketeswaran and other families attended a special memorial service for the dead at a monument on the coast of County Cork, Ireland.

Seeing the prime suspects walk free left a bitter taste for the relatives and prompted the push for an inquiry.

During the two-year Vancouver trial, southern Ontario had been portrayed as a hotbed of Babbar Khalsa activity.

The judge heard that Bagri spoke seven times at a Hamilton-area temple in 1984 while raising money for the terrorist group. He was usually accompanied by Parmar, whom the trial judge concluded was the Air India bombing "mastermind."

The Crown also produced a videotape of Bagri addressing a Sikh crowd in New York City, where he urged retaliation against the Indian government for the Golden Temple attack.

"Until we kill 50,000 Hindus, we will not rest," he said.

Malik and Bagri were acquitted mainly because the trial judge concluded the star Crown witness and accomplice was an "unmitigated liar."

A Sikh and Babbar Khalsa supporter, Inderjit Singh Reyat had pleaded guilty to manslaughter for his role in the Air India plot.

He agreed to testify for the Crown in exchange for a more lenient jail sentence, which he is serving now.

He has relatives in Hamilton and his daughter is married to Hamilton health store owner Tejinder Singh Kaloe, who was also charged in connection with the Hamilton plot.

The Hamilton case was based mainly on telephone conversations among the alleged conspirators that police had recorded.

But the case fell apart when Justice David Watt ordered the Crown to disclose the information police used to get a judge to approve the wiretaps.

Crown Attorney Dean Paquette, now a prominent defence lawyer, said the information would have revealed the names of confidential informants.

He decided to throw in the towel rather than burn the sources.

Since the dismissal of charges, Kaloe has prospered in business and now owns one of the city's biggest health food stores on James Street North.

The soft-spoken merchant, who has always maintained his innocence, said he would comply with the Air India inquiry if he's asked to testify. But he seemed dubious about the purpose to the exercise.

"It's all political, the inquiry," he said. But added he'd tell everything he knows if he took the stand.

Asked whether there were specific areas he'd like the inquiry to probe, he replied, "I have a few things right now I don't want to get into." 905-526-3385

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