Men charged with smuggling Lankans go on trial in Canada

a6-sunsea-jpgMore than six years after a rickety vessel with nearly 500 Sri Lankan Tamils aboard arrived off the coast of Vancouver Island, four men charged with human smuggling saw their trial open Wednesday in B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver, Times Colonist reported.

Lesly Emmanuel, Kunarobinson Christhurajah, Nadarajah Mahendran and Thampeernayagam Rajaratnam have pleaded not guilty to the offence under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

In his opening statement, Crown counsel Peter LaPrairie told a 12-member jury that the migrants were charged a fee, generally a $5,000 down payment, to be on the boat, with an additional $25,000 owing when they arrived in Canada, for a total of $30,000.

“A Sri Lankan national who wishes to enter Canada must have a valid passport and a visa issued by the Canadian government to come to Canada,” LaPrairie said. “None of the 492 persons aboard MV Sun Sea had the required travel documents.”

LaPrairie said that the migrants will testify that after leaving Sri Lanka they ended up in Bangkok, arriving there in the spring of 2010. Some migrants were housed in apartments in the Thai capital after arrangements were made by “agents” they dealt with while awaiting for the journey on the boat, he said.

When it was time to board MV Sun Sea, the migrants were transported to the south of Thailand and then put on a fishing vessel and taken out to the cargo ship. Some migrants spent several months on board before the vessel set sail for Canada on July 5, 2010, LaPrairie said.

“When the boat set sail for Canada there were 493 persons on-board. One person became ill during the journey and died at sea. His body was buried at sea.”

Emmanuel was the captain of the vessel, spending his time on the bridge operating the boat and staying in the crew’s quarters, LaPrairie said.

Christhurajah rented apartments for the migrants in Bangkok and supervised the loading of the migrants into vans for the journey to the south of Thailand, LaPrairie said.

Rajaratnam and Mahendran were acting as agents for the migrants and were not aboard MV Sun Sea when it was intercepted by Canadian authorities off the B.C. coast and escorted to CFB Esquimalt, he said. Both Rajaratnam and Mahendran are Canadian citizens.

The Crown portrayed some bleak living conditions for the migrants, who included 380 men, 63 women and 49 children aboard the vessel.

The vessel, which was intercepted by Canadian authorities on Aug. 12, 2010, was designed to accommodate a maximum of 13 crew and ply coastal waters instead of oceans. The small crew on MV Sun Sea had cabins, a washroom and a kitchen, but the hundreds of male migrants were forced to stay below deck in the cargo hold of the ship, LaPrairie said.

“There were no beds. The men slept on the floor. Food was sent below decks and the men were only allowed on deck for certain periods of time. The women and children slept under tarps on the deck of the boat.”

Once they had been transferred to the Lower Mainland, all of the passengers made refugee claims due to violence in Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan civil war.

The trial is expected to run eight weeks. (Colombo Gazette)