Canada files charge on Sri Lankan man

Two years ago, Royal Thai Police raided a Bangkok apartment building and arrested Thayakaran Markandu and three others suspected of amassing supplies for a human smuggling ship that was preparing to sail to Canada.

They were let off with a fine.

But on Wednesday, the RCMP issued an arrest warrant for a man with that same name, alleging he helped organize the MV Sun Sea, the cargo vessel that arrived off the British Columbia coast in August 2010 carrying 492 Sri Lankan asylum seekers.

While police would not confirm it was the same man, Mr. Markandu is the first suspect to be charged over the Sun Sea, a well-organized smuggling operation that was centred in Bangkok. He is accused of organizing entry into Canada. He is living abroad and has not been arrested.

“Obtaining enough evidence to have Mr. Markandu charged is an important step in holding those responsible for perpetrating this human smuggling scheme accountable,” said Superintendent Derek Simmonds, the officer in charge of the RCMP’s Federal Border Integrity Program in B.C.

He said a Canada-wide warrant had been issued but Mr. Markandu was not believed to be in the country. Once in custody, he will be extradited to Canada to stand trial, he said. “We are continuing to work with our international law enforcement partners to locate and arrest him.”

He could face life imprisonment and a $1-million fine if convicted.

The charge comes three weeks after the Conservative government introduced a controversial bill it says will make it easier to prosecute and jail human smugglers. Opposition parties oppose the bill, saying it punishes refugee claimants rather than smugglers. But with a majority of seats, the Tories can pass it into law without opposition support.

“Canada is a generous and compassionate country that welcomes newcomers,” Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said in a statement. “But no Canadian thinks it’s acceptable to abuse our immigration system for financial gain through the despicable crime of human smuggling.”

Since the Sun Sea smugglers began organizing their trip to Vancouver Island, charging up to tens of thousands of dollars for passage, Canadian police have been working in Southeast Asia to stop migrant ships before they head out to sea.

Even before the Sun Sea left Thailand for Canada, Mr. Markandu was apparently on the police radar. Royal Thai Police arrested a man by that name in a Bangkok apartment building along with the owner of the Sun Sea and two Sri Lankan-Canadians from Toronto.

At the time, passengers were being moved from Bangkok to southern Thailand, where they were ferried to the ship in fishing boats. Thai, Canadian and Australian police were trying to track the operation, which led them to Mr. Markandu and the others.

During the raid, Thai police seized 529 litres of engine lubricant in dozens of plastic oil drums, sacks of food and engine parts. Police photographed Mr. Markandu posing in front of the supplies. He was using a French passport at the time that identified him as a native of Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka.

But the arrests resulted in only charges of improper storage of materials and the men were released after paying a 10,000 Thai Baht fine, about $320. The Mounties would not confirm the man arrested in Bangkok was the same man they had charged.

Mr. Markandu is the fifth Sri Lankan to be charged with smuggling migrants to Canada by sea since the MV Ocean Lady arrived in October 2009 carrying 76 passengers and crew. Last June, four suspected organizers of the Ocean Lady were arrested around Toronto.

Refugee hearings for the migrants who travelled aboard the two ships are only now getting underway. Almost all are members of Sri Lanka’s ethnic Tamil minority and claim they will face persecution at the hands of the Sri Lankan government, pro-government militias and Tamil rebels if they are sent home.

But while Canada has long taken in Sri Lankan refugees, since the end of the country’s civil war the acceptance rate has dropped to 57% from 76% in 2010 and 91% in 2009. Of the 568 migrants on the Sun Sea and Ocean Lady, only four had been accepted as refugees as of a month ago. Several others have been ordered deported because of alleged involvement with the Tamil Tigers rebels.

(Courtesy National Post)