Bomb trial to reveal Sikh terror tactics

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The longest and most expensive criminal investigation in Canadian history, into the deadliest bombing of an aeroplane, this weekend made its most important advance in 15 years.

The longest and most expensive criminal investigation in Canadian history, into the deadliest bombing of an aeroplane, this weekend made its most important advance in 15 years.

When a bomb exploded in the forward baggage compartment of an Air India Boeing 747 on the morning of 23 June 1985, plunging Flight 182 from Montreal into the ocean just off the Irish coast with 329 people aboard, it exposed the intense involvement of the Canadian Sikh community in the terrorist campaign to establish an independent Sikh homeland in the Punjab.

On Friday, after an investigation that has so far cost £14m, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrested two British Columbia Sikhs, one a wealthy Vancouver businessman, and charged them with eight counts of murder, attempted murder and conspiracy to bomb several aircraft.

The charges against Ripudaman Singh Malik, the founder of Khalsa Credit Union, and Ajaib Sing Bagric, a sawmill worker from Kamloops, are only the latest developments in a saga tied to the insurgency which reached its height in the 1980s. The RCMP plans more arrests soon.

The campaign to establish the homeland referred to as Khalistan has divided the large Canadian Sikh community and sporadic violence continues between the various Sikh temple congregations. The moderate editor of a Sikh newspaper in Vancouver was murdered last year. Much of the radical activity is tied to a Khalsa religious school which has often employed and financed pro-Khalistan activists.

Moments after Flight 182 crashed, a bomb exploded at Japan's Narita airport, killing two baggage handlers. It was in a suitcase being transferred from a Canadian flight to another Air India flight, that had been delayed so avoiding the fate of Flight 182.

Most of the passengers on Flight 182, which had originated in Vancouver, were Canadian citizens of Indian descent who were travelling to India for schooling or holidays. The failure of both Canadian and Indian authorities to bring the perpetrators to trial for so long has prompted much criticism from relatives and friends.

The RCMP investigators have indicated since the late 1980s that they knew who was responsible for the bombings and there have been convictions related to the Narita explosion. But, until now, they have always indicated they did not have sufficient proof to lay any other charges. The investigation has been botched in several areas and been the subject of intense rivalry between the RCMP, and the Canadian Security and Intelligence Agency. Indeed, the executive director of CSIS was forced to resign in 1987 after some tapes from wire-tapping were accidentally erased.

One of those named as an unindicted co-conspirator with the two just charged, Inderjit Singh Reyat, is already in jail, convicted on manslaughter and explosives charges related to the Narita bomb. He belonged to the International Sikh Youth Federation, known for its militant activity.

The suspected mastermind, Talwinder Singh Parmar, fled to India when he learned of Reyat's arrest and was killed by Punjabi police four years later. He had been taken into custody by Canadian police after the bombings but released for lack of evidence.

The RCMP has not indicated what prompted the arrests of Mr Malik and Mr Bagri. But the trial, expected to be involve hundreds of witnesses, will throw light on the activities of the International Sikh Youth Federation and another suspected terrorist organisation, Barber Khalsa International.