| An artist’s rendering of Inderjit Singh Reyat in a Vancouver courtroom in 2001. (AFP file picture)
Vancouver (British Columbia) Feb. 11 (Reuters): A Sikh activist was yesterday jailed for five years after becoming the first person to admit his guilt in the 1985 bombing of Air India flight 182, the world’s deadliest act of aviation sabotage before September 11, 2001.
Inderjit Singh Reyat, 51, pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the 1985 Kanishka attack, admitting he had helped acquire materials used to make the bomb. But prosecutors said Reyat did not know who made the bomb and thought the equipment would be used to make bombs for use in India, and not to down a commercial airliner.
All 329 people aboard flight 182 were killed when the Boeing 747 crashed off the Atlantic coast of Ireland on June 23, 1985. Fewer than half the bodies were ever recovered.
“The immensity of the catastrophe is almost indescribable,” Justice Donald Brenner told Reyat. “It is important on a day like this that we do not forget those who are not present. And on this day there are 329 of them.”
The surprise plea came less than two months before Reyat and two other men were set to stand trial on murder charges.
Prosecutors lowered the charge against Reyat to manslaughter in return for his plea and left open the possibility that he might be called to testify as a witness.
The bombing, as well as a parallel blast an hour before, that killed two workers at Tokyo’s Narita Airport, were alleged to be the work of Sikh separatists seeking revenge for the Indian army’s 1984 storming of the Golden temple in Amritsar.
Police alleged that both bombs were built in British Columbia and loaded on to Canadian flights, that connected with Air India jets, by an unknown man who paid cash for the tickets but did not board the aircraft himself.
Reyat, who wore a dark blue turban and tan jacket to the courtroom, has already served 10 years on a manslaughter conviction for helping to build the Tokyo airport bomb.
The other defendants, Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri, were not present at the hearing, which took place in a high-security courtroom specially built for the trial.
Relatives of least one of the victims were also in the court, but did not speak to reporters, although the son of one of the men killed on flight 182 expressed surprise at the plea and the sentence.
“I think no one will be satisfied with five years,” Mandeep Cheema, of Surrey, British Columbia, told CBC Radio in a telephone interview.
Defence attorney David Gibbons said the plea showed Reyat’s remorse.“My client was a lesser player who was drawn into it by other players,” Gibbons told the court.
Gibbons said in court that his client was not becoming a prosecution witness, but acknowledged he could now be forced to testify in the trial. Reyat said nothing in court yesterday aside from entering his plea.
The prosecutors said the lower charge was justified by the evidence, but said they could not explain all of the reasons for plea agreement, out of fear of jeopardising Malik’s and Bagri’s right to fair trials.
“There are a number of important reasons why we have taken this step,” spokesman Geoffrey Gaul said.
Gaul defended the five-year prison term by saying that when combined with all the other time Reyat has spent in prison, it was the equivalent under Canadian law to the 25 years he could have received for a murder conviction.
All the three accused men lived in the Vancouver area, which has a large Sikh population, and most of the people on board flight 182 were Indian-born Canadian residents.
Malik, a wealthy Vancouver businessman, and Bagri, a sawmill worker from Kamloops, British Columbia, were arrested in October 2000.
Reyat was arrested on June 6, 2001, while serving the final days of the 10-year sentence for manslaughter for building the bomb that exploded in Narita, while luggage was being transferred to an Air India Flight from Tokyo to Bangkok.
According to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, flight 182’s black box flight recorder detected a thud, a muffled bang and a faint shriek. The pilot attempted to send a distress call as he fought to regain control of the aircraft.