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Harper moves to resolve dispute threatening Air India probe
Peter O'Neil
CanWest News Service; Vancouver Sun

CREDIT: Canadian Press/Tom Hanson
Air India inquiry commissioner Justice John Major announced Monday, Feb. 19, 2007 he might shut down the inquiry if certain documents are not made available.

OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Monday he has stepped in to resolve a dispute that threatens to shut down the probe into the worst terrorist act in Canadian history.

He was responding to Air India Inquiry Commissioner John Major's stark warning that he might scuttle the inquiry into the 1985 Air India bombings due to a lack of public access to crucial documents.

"I've instructed my national security adviser to meet with people in the various departments to impose a non-restrictive interpretation of the law, and to expedite resolution of this dispute as quickly as possible," Harper said in the House of Commons.

Major warned earlier Monday that government secrecy - driven by national security fears - is trumping Harper's promise last year to ensure victims' families that the deadly attacks and its aftermath would be subjected to a public probe.

"A serious problem has arisen," Major said in his address at the inquiry. "The question of national security has been raised by government agencies - CSIS, the RCMP, Foreign Affairs and others - that the public interest would be jeopardized in this era of violent world-wide terrorism if many of these documents were made public.

"On the other hand, by the terms of reference members of the families were in effect promised a public hearing, which by definition means just that."

He said the inquiry could "disappear into the quicksand of bureaucracy" if commission lawyers took the government to court to get needed documents declassified.

Harper appointed Major, a retired Supreme Court of Canada judge, last year to investigate circumstances surrounding the Air India bombings that left 331 people - mostly Canadians - dead. He promised the inquiry would find "answers to several key questions about the worst mass murder in Canadian history."

Harper noted Monday that Major and commission lawyers had been given full-and-uncensored access to all documents related to the inquiry, of which roughly 10 per cent couldn't be made public under Canadian law.

But Major made clear the hearing of evidence, set to begin on March 5 after Monday's adjournment, can't proceed unless the government gives ground and makes public documents that "are needed but currently denied" by bureaucrats.

"I understand all parties agree that under the present circumstances it would be futile to commence with the evidence that we have today, as it would lead nowhere," he said. "I've reached the conclusion that if the documents remain in a manner of speaking blacked out, there is no way I can carry out my mandate."

A spokesman for the Air India Victims Families Association said his group supports Major's stand to shut the inquiry if disclosure doesn't improve .

"What exactly is the government hiding?" said Dr. Bal Gupta of Toronto

"We don't want a charade. We don't want a whitewash."

Lawyers for the families of the victims acknowledged there are national security concerns that would prevent, for instance, the release of documents showing detailed intelligence provided by a foreign government.

"But what we don't know is to what extent has the Government of Canada made an effort with those foreign governments to see if (we can) now release this material," said Jacques Shore.

Two baggage handlers were killed on June 23, 1985 at Tokyo's Narita Airport after luggage, from a Canadian Pacific Airlines flight from Vancouver destined for a subsequent Air India flight, blew up. Less than an hour later Air India flight 182, originating in Vancouver and en route to London, exploded in the sky near Ireland, killing all 329 passengers and crew on board.

Police say the perpetrators were Sikhs in B.C. who were enraged by the Indian government's deadly 1984 assault on the Golden Temple in India's Punjab state. B.C. residents Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri were acquitted of charges relating to the terror attacks in March, 2005, after a judge ruled that there was insufficient evidence to convict.

Inderjit Singh Reyat was the only person convicted in the attacks, receiving a five-year sentence in 2003 after being found guilty of manslaughter and with assistance in the construction of a bomb.

Vancouver Sun

© CanWest News Service 2007

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