A Canadian public inquiry concluded today that authorities should have known an Air India flight in 1985, which was blown up killing 329 people, was a likely terrorist target. The bombing of Air India flight 182 remains one of the world’s deadliest terrorist strikes. It is the largest case of mass murder in Canadian history.
Former supreme court justice John Major said today that a cascading series of errors contributed to the failure of Canada’s police and security forces to prevent the atrocity. “The level of error, incompetence, and inattention which took place before the flight was sadly mirrored in many ways for many years, in how authorities, governments, and institutions dealt with the aftermath of the murder of so many innocents,” Major said in a five-volume report.
The Air India flight from Montreal to London, originating in Vancouver, exploded and crashed off Ireland on 23 June, 1985. An hour earlier, a bomb in baggage intended for another Air India flight exploded in Tokyo airport, killing two baggage handlers. The attacks were blamed on Sikh militants based in British Columbia who, prosecutors said, sought revenge for a 1984 raid by Indian forces on the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the Sikh’s holiest site. About 800 Sikhs, including militants taking refuge, lost their lives.
Canadian intelligence officials had apparently learned of the plot by Sikh separatists in Canada and India to launch an attack. “There were individuals in the Sikh community who claimed to have knowledge about the bombing and its perpetrators,” said Major.
“The agencies failed to obtain that information, to preserve its use as evidence or to offer adequate protection to those individuals. Instead they engaged in turf wars,” Major said.
Inderit Singh Reyat, who was convicted of manslaughter for the bombings, remains the only suspect ever convicted. Two other accused were brought to trial, but never convicted.
Testimony from current and former members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service painted a picture of strained relations between the two agencies in the 1980s, with vital wiretap tapes erased, leads left to grow cold, investigators quitting in frustration and crucial witnesses reluctant to co-operate because they feared for their lives. Air transport experts told of security lapses by Air India and Canadian airport authorities and regulators.
Major said holes in the country’s security systems still need to be fixed. He recommended greater powers for the national security adviser to set security policies and priorities, and to oversee communication between agencies. He called for improved police work, intelligence operations, airline security and the conduct of anti-terrorist trials.
The inquiry did not have a mandate to identify the perpetrators of the crime, but its job was to determine what went wrong and what can be done to prevent a similar tragedy in the future.
Major’s report also recommended compensation for the families who, he said, were often treated as adversaries.
“I stress this is a Canadian atrocity,” Major said. “For too long, the greatest loss of Canadian lives at the hands of terrorists has somehow been relegated outside the Canadian consciousness.”