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Jury hears details of man’s death on ship carrying Tamil migrants

Hundreds of passengers, Tamils fleeing Sri Lanka, slept on the deck of MV Sun Sea, seen here as it enters Canadian waters, as it took them from Thailand to Canada in 2010.

Master Corporal Angela Abbey/MCpl Angela Abbey Canadian Forces Comnat Camera

A Tamil man whose uncle died during their voyage to Canada on a migrant vessel six years ago has told a human-smuggling trial his relative was extremely ill in the days leading up to his death.

The MV Sun Sea docked in British Columbia in August, 2010, carrying 492 Sri Lankan Tamils – 380 men, 63 women, and 49 children. The ship was the second Tamil migrant vessel to arrive in this province in less than a year and made international headlines.

Kunarobinson Christhurajah, Lesly Emmanuel, Nadarajah Mahendran and Thampeernayagam Rajaratnam have each been charged under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act with organizing the trip. Their jury trial began two weeks ago in Vancouver.

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The MV Sun Sea departed with 493 persons on board, but one passenger died during the five-week voyage.

Ragu Gnanasountharanayakam testified in B.C. Supreme Court on Monday and told the jury the deceased was his uncle.

He said his uncle had been vomiting every time he ate. Mr. Gnanasountharanayakam said about two or three days before his uncle died, he began vomiting blood.

He said his uncle was given some kind of medication, but it did not appear to help.

Mr. Gnanasountharanayakam said he was sleeping next to his uncle when he died. He said he was allowed to go into the crew's area of the ship and call his parents to tell them what had happened.

A brief funeral was held a short time later. The uncle died in the early morning and Mr. Gnanasountharanayakam said it was still dark when he was buried at sea.

Mr. Gnanasountharanayakam said the decision was made to bury his uncle in the water because there were women and children on board, though he did not provide further details.

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"They tied him and dropped him in the sea," Mr. Gnanasountharanayakam told the court through an interpreter, though he did not specify to whom he was referring.

Mr. Gnanasountharanayakam told the court growing up in northern Sri Lanka was extremely difficult. He said he often saw bombs explode and he and his family eventually fled their home for a refugee camp.

He said his brother was at one point kidnapped by the Sri Lankan army. He said he did not know his brother's fate for several years, but has since learned his brother managed to reach Switzerland.

Sri Lanka's decades-long civil war came to an end in 2009, when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam were defeated by government forces.

Mr. Gnanasountharanayakam said he, too, was attacked by members of the Sri Lankan army. He said he was beaten and made the decision to leave the country because his life was at risk.

Mr. Gnanasountharanayakam told the court a friend put him in touch with an "agent" and he agreed to pay about $25,000 (U.S.) to get out of Sri Lanka. He said he had paid about $7,000 (U.S.) of the money when he boarded the vessel.

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He said he initially flew to Bangkok, where he was taken to an apartment. He said he was in Thailand for about two and a half months, when he received a call telling him it was time to make the voyage.

Mr. Gnanasountharanayakam said he and other Tamils were then taken by bus to a beach. He said they left in the morning, and it was dark by the time they arrived. He said the Tamils were then taken to fishing boats, and it took about two days more to reach the MV Sun Sea.

He said he had been told his uncle would be on board the ship, but had not expected to actually see him.

Casey Leggett, Mr. Christhurajah's lawyer, at one point asked Mr. Gnanasountharanayakam what his life was like now. Mr. Gnanasountharanayakam, 31, indicated his circumstances were much improved.

He said he has been granted refugee status in Canada and is working for a window company in Ontario.

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Based in Vancouver, Sunny has been with The Globe and Mail since November, 2010. More

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