News / Vancouver

Sri Lankan man owned ship that smuggled Tamil migrants to Canada: Crown

Lawyer says the evidence was contaminated as hundreds of migrants were kept in the same detention centre, and were able to discuss the questions investigators had asked them.

Migrants, right, look over the side of the MV Sun Sea while armed police officers stand by after the ship was escorted into CFB Esquimalt in Colwood, B.C., Friday, Aug. 13, 2010.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Migrants, right, look over the side of the MV Sun Sea while armed police officers stand by after the ship was escorted into CFB Esquimalt in Colwood, B.C., Friday, Aug. 13, 2010.

VANCOUVER — A Sri Lankan man accused of human smuggling was the owner of the rickety cargo ship that transported hundreds of Tamil migrants from Thailand to British Columbia, a Crown prosecutor said in his final arguments Friday. 

Charles Hough told the jury the man, Kunarobinson Christhurajah, rented office space in 2008 and 2009 under a fake name in Bangkok for the Sun & Rashiya Co., which owned the MV Sun Sea.

Hough said while the defence had argued that Christhurajah had divested himself of the company by the time the vessel travelled across the Pacific in 2010, the man's behaviour doesn't match that argument.

"The evidence in this case is consistent with Mr. Christhurajah being the owner of the ship, in essence," said Hough.

The MV Sun Sea left Thailand on July 5, 2010. The dilapidated ship was intercepted off the coast of B.C. on Aug. 12, 2010, carrying 492 Sri Lankan Tamils who intended to claim refugee status in Canada.

Christhurajah and three other men have pleaded not guilty to organizing the voyage, contrary to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

Hough said some of the passengers arrived in Bangkok in spring 2010. Christhurajah supervised migrants being loaded onto buses and vans to be taken from Thailand's capital to the south of the country, the Crown prosecutor argued.

Once there, migrants were placed on fishing vessels which took them to the MV Sun Sea, he said, but the ship sat off the coast of Thailand for several months while it was loaded with passengers.

Hough said the jury had heard that migrants paid a sum up front, generally about $5,000, and were supposed to pay the rest of the fee upon arrival to Canada.

Christhurajah eventually boarded the ship, and Hough argued he did so in order to help supervise its journey across the Pacific and protect his investment.

"It's really important that this ship get to Canada," said Hough. "Most of the money didn't have to be paid until the migrants got to Canada."

Hough is expected to continue his final submissions on Monday.

Lawyers for Christhurajah and Lesly Emmanuel, who is accused of being the captain of the ship, delivered their closing arguments Thursday.

Casey Leggett, Christhurajah’s lawyer, told the jury on Thursday that the Crown had failed to prove that his client was not acting for a humanitarian purpose, the Vancouver Sun reported.

Leggett said there was no evidence his client profited or received any compensation for his actions.

The lawyers for the Canadian men, Nadarajah Mahendran and Thampeernayagam Rajaratnam, made their submissions earlier Friday, and argued the men must be acquitted because authorities conducted a flawed investigation resulting in unreliable evidence.

Mark Nohra, who represents Mahendran, told the jury in closing arguments that the Canada Border Services Agency and RCMP showed "total disregard" for policies established to "protect people's liberty and freedom."

He said investigators repeatedly showed isolated photographs of his client to migrants during interviews. Migrants' identification of his client could not be trusted because the image had been "burned" into their brains, he said.

Nohra said the evidence was contaminated because hundreds of migrants were kept in the same detention centre. They were able to discuss the questions investigators had asked them and the photographs they had been shown, he said.

Rajaratnam's lawyer Vicki Williams said there is no evidence of her client having financial dealings with migrants. He travelled to Thailand to arrange voyage on the MV Sun Sea for several of his family members, including his mother-in-law and father-in-law, she said.

Williams said the Crown had argued during the trial that because the conditions of the ship were cramped and poor, then the actions of anyone involved in its voyage could not be humanitarian.

She asked the jury to dismiss this argument.

"No one is saying this was a luxury liner going across the Pacific," she said. "It was the best option that these individuals had in their circumstances." 

— Follow @ellekane on Twitter.

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