Oct 20, Vancouver: The trial for four men charged with human-smuggling for bringing nearly 500 Sri Lankan Tamils in a rickety cargo ship to Canada in 2010 opened on Wednesday in British Columbia Supreme Court in Vancouver.
Lesly Emmanuel, Kunarobinson Christhurajah, Nadarajah Mahendran and Thampeernayagam Rajaratnam have pleaded not guilty to the offence under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, the Vancouver Sun reported.
The MV Sun Sea, a Thai cargo ship modified to accommodate people reached Vancouver in August 2010 with 492 Tamil asylum seekers from Sri Lanka on board.
Sri Lankan authorities at the time warned the Canadian officials of the possibility of wanted Tamil Tiger terrorists on board the ship claiming refugee status.
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," said LaPrairie. "None of the 492 persons aboard the MV Sun Sea had the required travel documents."
LaPrairie said that the migrants will testify that after leaving Sri Lanka they eventually ended up in Bangkok, arriving there in the spring of 2010. Some migrants were housed in apartments in Bangkok 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 the MV Sun Sea, the migrants were transported to the south of Thailand, on the coast, and then put on a fishing vessel and taken out to the cargo ship off the coast, said the prosecutor. Some of the migrants spent several months on-board before the vessel set sail for Canada on July 5, 2010, said LaPrairie.
"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, said LaPrairie.
Christhurajah was among the last group to arrive on the boat, the vessel not leaving until he arrived, said the Crown. "He stayed in the crew’s quarters. He was a person of influence on the boat." 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, said LaPrairie.
Rajaratnam and Mahendran were acting as agents for the migrants and were not aboard the MV Sun Sea when it was intercepted by Canadian authorities off the B.C. coast, 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 the 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, said LaPrairie.
"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."
LaPrairie urged the jury to use common sense and their everyday experience to assess the evidence and determine the outcome of the case.
The trial is expected to run eight weeks.