VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - The only man convicted in connection with the 1985 Air India bombings was granted bail on Wednesday as he awaits trial for allegedly lying to a Canadian court that he knew nothing about the plot.
The ruling by British Columbia Court of Appeal judge Anne Rowles, which caught government officials by surprise, allows Inderjit Singh Reyat, 55, to be out of prison for the first time in two decades.
Details of the ruling, including the reasons and the conditions placed on Reyat during his release, are subject to a publication ban. His perjury trial in Vancouver is scheduled to start in January.
B.C. Attorney General Wally Oppal, a former judge, said it was rare for a bail decision to be overturned, but called the release conditions “as strict as they can be.”
“We are disappointed with his release,” Oppal said at a news conference. He stressed, however, that while the public associates Reyat with the 1985 bombings, the upcoming trial deals only with a perjury charge.
Reyat pleaded guilty in 2003 to a reduced charge of manslaughter and was convicted of helping to construct the bomb that destroyed Air India Flight 182 over the Atlantic Ocean in June 1985. The blast killed 329 people in history’s deadliest bombing of a civilian aircraft.
Reyat was also convicted in 1991 of manslaughter for constructing a bomb intended to explode on another Air India jet over the Pacific. That bomb was supposed to go off at the same time as the one on Flight 182, but exploded prematurely and killed two Japanese airport workers.
The bombings are believed to be the work of Canadian-based Sikh religious separatists who wanted to exact revenge on the Indian government for its 1984 attack on Sikhism’s Golden Temple in Amritsar.
Reyat was later charged with perjury for his testimony during the trial of two other men charged with the Flight 182 bombing, Ajaib Singh Bagri and Ripudaman Singh Malik -- who were both found not guilty in 2005.
Reyat told the trial he did not know who else was involved in the plot. Police have never publicly identified another man they say worked with Reyat, an auto electrician, to build the bomb at his home in Duncan, British Columbia.
The bombs were placed on the aircraft in suitcases by people who did not board the planes themselves.
The judge at the trial of Bagri and Malik called Reyat an “unmitigated liar,” and prosecutors in the perjury case allege that he made 27 false statements while on the witness stand.
Relatives of the victims of the bombings expressed surprise and disappointment at the ruling.
“He may not have had his liberty for 20 years, but mother is not going to rise from the dead,” Susheel Gupta told CBC television.
Three conditions would have allowed the court to hold the prisoner in jail rather than grant bail: a perceived threat to the public, the risk of flight, and whether his release would hold the system of justice in disrepute.
Editing by Rob Wilson