Sep 28, 2009 04:30 AM
A convicted terrorist is asking to practise law in Greater Toronto.
Parminder Singh Saini, 46, blames youth and naïveté for his role in a violent airline hijacking 25 years ago in his native India and says he is rehabilitated.
"I had no legitimate right to do that," he told the Law Society of Upper Canada recently. "It’s not legal."
He deserves a second chance, he and his advocates say.
"He served his time and was subsequently pardoned," says York University political science professor Sandra Whitworth, who taught him in 2001.
"The evidence of his character in the last 25 years points toward a complete rehabilitation on his part," his lawyer Frank Addario told the law society hearing.
But critics remain skeptical.
Aside from hijacking a plane and shooting at several of his 270-plus hostages, Saini lied his way into Canada, has never gained landed immigrant status, faces deportation and by ministerial order remains a national security threat.
"Over the course of the last 15 years, (Canadian) courts and tribunals have declared that he is a danger to the public and security in Canada and that he shouldn’t remain," law society counsel Susan Heakes told the hearing this month into whether to accept Saini’s licence application to practise law.
"How can you reconcile those decisions, as recent as July 2009, and find that Mr. Saini … should be admitted to the bar?" she asked.
Nobody questions Saini’s initiative and persistence. While fighting deportation to India, he earned a BA from York University and a law degree at the University of Windsor, finishing in 2006.
He articled at a Brampton law firm and a Toronto immigration law firm and keeps an office at Singh and Associates, his brother’s Mississauga immigration consultancy.
Saini displayed similar determination a quarter century ago.
On July 5, 1984, when he was 21, he and four accomplices in the militant All India Sikh Students Federation boarded an Air India flight in Srinagar in the Himalayan foothills and commandeered it at gunpoint 20 minutes after takeoff. In full view of passengers, he pointed a pistol at a steward’s head and fired.
"(The bullet) did not hit him," the trial judge later wrote in a 184-page judgment, "but there is little doubt that the object of Parminder Singh (Saini) … was to intimidate and terrorize the crew members and the passengers."
At the cockpit door, Saini fired two or three more shots. One bullet pierced the door, striking the flight engineer in the back.
He ordered the pilot to land in Lahore, Pakistan, and for the next 20 hours kept everybody hostage as he tried to negotiate a list of demands before eventually surrendering.
"They said that they were going to blow up the aircraft and we should say our last prayer," a female attendant later testified at his trial.
Saini told the court the hijacking had been a protest against the controversial army attack upon Sikh militants in Amritsar a month earlier that left hundreds dead and a revered temple badly damaged.
"I was a disciple of (Sikh militant) Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who was killed in the army action against the Golden Temple," he said.
The judge sentenced Saini to hang. Authorities later commuted the sentence to life in prison and after 10 years released him on condition he leave the country.
Saini came to Canada.
On Jan. 21, 1995, he presented himself to Canadian customs as Balbir Singh, carrying a fake Afghan passport. He said he had no criminal record and no family in Canada, then went to live with his mother and brother in Brampton. Eight months later, CSIS caught him and ordered him deported.
In two separate reviews, adjudicators declared him a threat. One noted an "almost total lack of credibility and trustworthiness" and "a continuing ability and willingness to engage in unlawful behaviour."
Saini has been fighting his deportation order and security-threat status ever since. In 2000 the Federal Court agreed the deportation order should be cancelled, but that ruling was overturned in 2001 by the Federal Court of Appeal.
"Hijacking terrorizes all nations and society as a whole," the appeal judges wrote.
Saini declined an interview with the Star but said through his lawyer that he would be pleased to speak after the Law Society of Upper Canada releases its decision. Tribunal chairman William Simpson said that could come at any time.