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Tears, anger greet verdict in Kanishka bombing case

VANCOUVER (CANADA), MARCH 17. Rattan Kalsi emerged from the courtroom with a look of shock on his face on Wednesday. The men accused of killing his daughter and 328 other people on the Air India plane Kanishka (Flight 182) had been acquitted.

Mr. Kalsi, who lives in Ontario, handed reporters a snapshot of his daughter taken before the June 23, 1985, bombing and said the next court for the defendants would be before God. "They will be punished later," he said.

More than 70 relatives of the victims of Flight 182 came to Vancouver from around the world for what they hoped would be guilty verdicts against Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri.

Instead, they found themselves weeping as the British Columbia Supreme Court Judge, Ian Bruce Josephson, ruled that the prosecution had not proven its case and he did not believe their key witnesses.

"Oh my God, Oh my God," another of the relatives said to herself as the judge read his not guilty verdict. Her elderly husband came up to comfort the woman in her wheelchair, his eyes welling up with tears.

At a news conference about two hours after the verdict, the families repeated their shock, as well as anger, at how the government had handled the entire investigation.

"With the passage of time there are now two crimes we must contend with: the murder of 329 innocent persons and the time it has taken to answer the questions of how and why," Susheel Gupta told reporters.

Families of the victims angrily demanded a public inquiry after a judge acquitted two Sikh activists of the crime. But Canada's chief justice official said that little would be gained from a probe of the investigation and prosecution of the case that cost more than $83 million and was one of the most complicated in Canadian history.

Others decried what they said was Ottawa's insensitivity to their plight. "They owe it to us. They owe it to the 329 victims of this crime," said Eddie Madon of North Vancouver, who lost his father.

One man said Ottawa might have taken the investigation more seriously had the victims been "mainstream Anglo-Saxon Canadians."

The Public Safety Minister, Anne McLellan, talking to reporters in Edmonton, Alberta, wondered what more could be learned about the bombings since the trial had lasted 19 months and heard from 115 witnesses. "There will be, tragically, some questions that may very well not be answered, just as we know out of 9/11 there are questions that will never be answered, as hard as we look,'' she said.

Several relatives of those killed blasted Ms. McLellan. ``I am totally appalled that the Deputy Prime Minister would say something like that," said Lata Pada, who lost her husband and two daughters on Flight 182.

Other victims' relatives said an inquiry could help prevent future terrorist attacks.

The families have long complained that it took police until late 2000 to file charges in the case. And, despite repeated claims they knew of at least six suspects, police were able to bring only Malik and Bagri to trial. A third man charged in the crime pleaded guilty in 2003 to a reduced charge.

Police blamed what they said was an unwillingness of members of Canada's Sikh community to cooperate. At least one potential trial witness, Tara Singh Hayer, was murdered before Malik and Bagri were arrested.

The relatives of the two accused were also in court, some dressed in traditional Sikh clothing. Their expressions were less emotional during the nearly hour-long session, but they began to smile as it became clear the judge was acquitting the two men. Bagri, 53, a Kamloops, British Columbia sawmill worker has been in custody since his arrest in late 2000. When he emerged from court his daughter, Inderdeep, who had regularly attended the 19-month trial, had her arm around him. Bagri greeted about 12 supporters, hugging each individually before meeting with reporters. Inderdeep read a short prepared statement that again proclaimed his innocence and thanked his family for their support.

Malik, 58, a wealthy Vancouver businessman, was not accompanied by family when he left the court. His lawyers and sheriffs lead him through the court's back hallways to the front door in a bid to avoid reporters. — Reuters

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