A convicted hijacker and terrorist who said he has mended his ways will not be allowed to practise law in Ontario.
The Law Society of Upper Canada has denied Parminder Singh Saini a licence to practise, citing his criminal past, among other factors, as evidence that he is not of good character.
“At this point in time, while Mr. Saini has shown an ability to obtain university degrees and has impressed a number of people, we are still left with a number of serious concerns,” panel chairman William Simpson wrote in a law society ruling this month.
The decision comes as good-character hearings have become more common at the LSUC, says Heenan Blaikie LLP lawyer and former law society treasurer Gavin MacKenzie. In such cases, the burden of proving good character falls on the applicant, he notes, adding that doing so becomes more difficult when dealing with convictions for serious crimes.
“An important factor is how much time has elapsed,” he says, calling such matters a subjective process that considers evidence of past conduct together with proof of remedial steps taken in the interim.
“It is not a forum for questioning political views,” he points out.
In Saini’s case, his lawyer, Frank Addario, argued last year that his client regretted his misdeeds, had amassed a roster of impressive personal and professional references in Canada, and had rehabilitated himself from the man who committed what the panel called “a horrendous crime.”
According to an agreed statement of facts, in 1984, when Saini was 21, he hijacked an airplane at gunpoint in India “at the behest of leaders within his religious community.”
With more than 270 people on board, Saini and his accomplices, armed with guns and kirpans, ordered the plane rerouted to Lahore, Pakistan.
The statement said Saini and leaders of a militant Sikh organization orchestrated the hijacking to raise awareness of the repression of the Sikh community in India, including the attack on the Golden Temple at Amritsar by the Indian army.
After the plane landed, Saini acted as spokesperson and negotiated with Pakistani authorities. Some 20 hours later, the hijackers released the hostages and were arrested.
Saini received a death sentence that authorities later commuted to life in prison. They released him after he had served 10 years.
Addario submitted to the panel that Saini had been on a course of rehabilitation for more than 20 years, has not been convicted of any offences since arriving in Canada in 1995, and was not part of an ideological community.
He argued as well that his client was of good character and was now “deserving of being called to the bar,” the ruling said.
Saini also argued that his official pardon from the Pakistani government should nullify the hijacking as a factor to consider in determining whether he should practise law in Ontario.
The panel acknowledged that, in theory, a man convicted of hijacking a passenger plane could rehabilitate himself to the point of good character.
“Does that person, however, have more difficulty in demonstrating that he is now of good character than a person who was convicted, for example, of shoplifting a sandwich?” Simpson asked. “This is not a higher burden of proof but simply a reflection of the seriousness of the prior conduct which must be overcome.”
In addition, the panel took issue with Saini’s conduct upon arriving in Canada.
After he left prison, Pakistani authorities asked Saini to leave the country, the statement of facts said. He arrived here under an assumed identity and sought asylum. For several months, he successfully deceived immigration officials until a Canadian Security Intelligence Service investigation uncovered his real name and his dubious past.
Saini was arrested, declared a “danger to the public” by the minister of immigration, and ordered deported.
While serving three years in immigration detention in Canada, Saini’s father in Pakistan obtained his son’s pardon.
The Federal Court later accepted the pardon and stayed the deportation order.
But the Federal Court of Appeal, ruling that the pardon didn’t amount to its equivalent in Canadian law and didn’t change the removal order overturned that decision.
A subsequent deportation assessment, however, determined that Saini might face personal risk if sent back to India.
Then last summer, an immigration official expressed concern about Saini’s capacity to reoffend.
“I am not satisfied that should the occasion again present itself, such extreme passions could not be reawakened in Mr. Saini and that he would not resort to crimes in the service of what he may perceive as an honourable and moral cause,” the assessment said.
Saini’s immigration status remains unresolved, another factor that didn’t work in his favour, the LSUC panel ruled.
On his law society application, Saini responded with a “lack of candour” about his immigration case by indicating he would be getting permanent residency status within a year, barring delays.
In addition, Saini sought to cast doubt on the effect of the appeal court ruling on his pardon, the panel said. Together, those “less than candid interpretations” weakened Saini’s assertion that he is of good character, the ruling said.
The law society agreed that Saini has shown a commitment to self-improvement in Canada and had recommendations from some of his university professors and others, including immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman.
After earning a law degree from the University of Windsor, Saini articled under Waldman, who was impressed with his commitment, the ruling said.
The prominent lawyer told the panel that Saini “wants to contribute and be meaningful to society” and would be a “valuable member of the bar.”
But the determination that Saini poses a public risk remains a concern, Simpson pointed out.
“Considering the fact that after 18 years, there is still a finding that he is a danger to the public and that he is still not admitted to Canada, should Mr. Saini be admitted to the law society, public confidence in the legal profession would likely be affected adversely and the integrity and standing of the bar would likely be affected also,” the ruling said.
Addario, meanwhile, said neither he nor his client would comment on the decision.