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The lost tapes of the Air India investigation
Fate is a river that runs its own course.
In the late 1980’s, as evidence was amassed for the largest terrorist trial in Canadian history, senior prosecutor Jim Jardine assembled his legal team, primarily from those already working in gangs and organized crime investigations.
As a young prosecutor at the time, quite junior and pregnant with my daughter, I wouldn’t be assigned to that team, but knew most of the members well. I will never forget when word came from Ottawa that keenly awaited transcripts of wiretapped phone calls would not be forthcoming. Inexplicably, the newly formed CSIS had erased more than 150 tapes of phone calls made by the prime suspects in the case. Apparently, the tapes were erased by junior staffers unaware of their significance.
That day the blood ran cold in every prosecutor in the office. Doom seemed to fall on the entire investigation. No one then knew then that a verdict was 17 years away, and it wouldn't bring justice.
The police investigation of Air India is probably taught in police and intelligence training courses across the country.
Unbelievably, the suspects were under blanket police surveillance in the weeks, days and hours before the attack. Explosives testing, conducted weeks earlier by Inderjit Singh Reyat on Vancouver Island, was monitored by RCMP. Phones were tapped. South Vancouver residences were under 24 hour surveillance.
And all the while, subjects under surveillance managed to pack explosives into two suitcases, take them to Vancouver International Airport and have them loaded onto flights bound for India. 332 were killed as each bomb detonated, one of the largest terrorist attacks in history.
CSIS was then newly formed, and there was word of tension with RCMP investigators. But the erasure of the tapes themselves—hours of critical conversations between the suspects—doomed the case right out of the starting gate. If memory serves, the conversations were never transcribed or translated.
The Charter of Rights was in its infancy in those days, and how courts would deal with the loss of such key evidence was unknown. But it was a certainty that defence counsel would rightly argue, as they did, that the the recordings could have exonerated some or all of the accused. Hence the loss of such critical evidence violated their rights.
There are moments in a criminal trial when as a prosecutor, you know you're sunk. In the OJ Simpson case, that came when a police detective was found to have lied under oath. When your cop is caught lying in the witness box, you might as well just pack up and go home.
The day we learned the tapes were erased felt like that. I wasn’t even on the team, but still the news came like a physical blow. Recovering from that setback and meticulously piecing together a case sufficient for prosecution took years. Investigators valiantly fought for every inch.
They got a major break when Canadian journalist Tara Singh Hayer came forward, prepared to testify to having overheard detailed admissions by the accused Ajaib Singh Bagri.
Hayer should be hailed across the country as a Canadian hero for his courage, but he never took the stand. He was murdered in his driveway before charges were ever laid.
All in all, it took more than a decade for police to arrest main suspects Ripudamin Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri, who were ultimately both acquitted. Only Inderjit Singh Reyat, the fall-guy explosives man, was ever convicted of anything.
For those of us old enough to remember, Air India was an unspeakable tragedy and crime.
But it tells another tale, too. It tells of the quicksilver caprice of fate. A fate that heartlessly sends children to oblivion, and punishes no one.