Air India Bombing Suspect Pleads Guilty to Manslaughter

TERRI THEODORE

VANCOUVER (CP) - One of three men charged in the 1985 crash of an Air India jetliner that killed 329 people admitted Monday to helping build the bomb that brought down the plane.

Inderjit Singh Reyat was sentenced to five years in prison for manslaughter in a plea agreement worked out between the Crown and defence lawyers that one victim's relative described as a slap on the face.

Chief Justice Donald Brenner said Reyat's actions "had consequences that were tragic almost beyond description."

"It's imperative that on a day like today we not forget those who are not with us," he said. "Those 329 people are very much on our minds."

An agreed statement of fact submitted to B.C. Supreme Court said Reyat was told he was making explosive devices to be used in India to blow up a car, a bridge or something heavy. He said he was never told the bombs would be used to down a plane.

Two other men face first-degree murder charges in the Air India crash.

Reyat's lawyer David Gibbons said he didn't know whether the Crown would subpoena Reyat to testify at the Air India trial, but that no deal had been made with the Crown.

"The opposite is true," he said. "I was careful not to come to that arrangement."

Crown spokesman Geoff Gaul said Air India prosecutors met with some of the relatives of the victims in Vancouver last week. Some family members were flown in from outside the province

"We explained our reasoning to them, we listened to them," Gaul said.

"It is fair to say that it was an emotional discussion. There was a general understanding of the Crown's decision, A, why we took the decision and B, why it was manslaughter."

Crown counsel Robert Wright said he was seeking a five-year sentence because of the time Reyat had spent in jail. Reyat, 51, served a 10-year sentence for a separate bombing at Narita airport in Japan on the same day as the Air India crash and spent time in custody awaiting trial.

"The total works out to 300 months or 25 years," Wright said.

Gaul said time spent in custody awaiting trial is generally credited on a two-to-one basis.

"Because Mr. Reyat has spent a total of five years in pre-sentence custody his actual sentence for his role in the Narita bombing and the explosion of Air India Flight 182 with the deaths of the 329 individuals amounts to 25 years in prison," Gaul said.

Twenty-five years is the minimum sentence that must be served on a first-degree murder conviction.

Gibbons said Reyat could be eligible for parole after serving 18 months to two years.

Brenner said a 25-year sentence was "fit and proper."

Attorney General Geoff Plant said he supported the Crown's actions.

"We looked at all the issues that I think are important," Plant said.

"We asked as many questions as I think could be asked and my view is this is the right decision for this case and for these charges."

Reyat appeared in the high-security courtroom built for the Air India case, the worst mass murder in Canadian history.

Two sheets of Plexiglas separated him from the gallery.

He showed little emotion, shaking his head when Brenner asked him if he had anything to say before sentencing.

Reyat had been facing first-degree murder charges along with Ripudaman Singh Malik of Vancouver and Ajaib Singh Bagri of Kamloops, B.C., in a trial due to begin at the end of March.

Reyat pleaded guilty to manslaughter, as well as a charge of aiding in the construction of a bomb.

Charges against Reyat of first-degree murder and conspiracy to murder were stayed.

The police probe and pre-trial preparation was estimated to have cost more than $80 million, including $32 million for the RCMP investigation.

The Air India defence is being paid for by the public. A former lawyer for one of the accused estimated it could cost taxpayers up to $1 million a month to pay for the defence for a trial that could last three years.

"The effect of the plea by Mr. Reyat is we are no longer as a public paying for the defence of one of the three accused then that will have an effect on the cost of the proceedings," Plant said.

"Beyond that, in terms of calculation of how much, it's too soon to say. It's certainly too soon for me to say what impact if anything this may have on the conduct of the balance of the trial."

Gibbons said there was no evidence Reyat intended to kill anyone.

He said Reyat thinks about the victims' families every day.

"Remorse is not a word that's even large enough to get near what he feels for their sorrow," Gibbons said.

Wright said parents, children, grandparents, great-grandparents and in some cases entire families were wiped out.

"The Canadian government is slapping on our faces," said Sushila Rauthan, 53, of Nepean, Ont., whose husband and daughter died in the Air India explosion.

Air India Flight 182 went down off the coast of Ireland on June 23, 1985, killing all 329 passengers - 278 of them Canadians - and crew on board.

A bomb exploded in luggage en route to another Air India flight at Narita airport the same day, killing two baggage handlers.

Reyat was sentenced in 1991 to 10 years in prison for that bombing.

He was charged with murder and conspiracy in the bombing of Flight 182 days before he finished serving his manslaughter sentence.

Malik and Bagri face additional charges related to the Narita bomb.

They were charged in October 2000 after a long, intense and expensive investigation.

Reyat was charged in June 2001 after the British courts approved a waiver of extradition rights. British law would have barred him from being charged with further crimes after being extradited expressly for the Narita blast.

Early on, police focused on militants among the Sikh community in British Columbia, home to about half of Canada's 200,000 Sikhs - a minority group in India.

Police linked the blast to Sikh activists fighting for a homeland in India, and outraged by the Indian government's 1984 raid on the seat of the Sikh faith, the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

The Canadian Press, 2003