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Man guilty of smuggling Tamil migrants to Canada given four-year sentence

Migrants look over the side of the MV Sun Sea in Colwood, B.C., on Aug. 13, 2010.

Jonathan Hayward/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A Sri Lankan man found guilty of smuggling Tamil migrants to Canada won't serve any more time in prison, despite being handed a four-year sentence on Monday.

Kunarobinson Christhurajah, who has already spent seven years behind bars awaiting trial, smiled as he stood before a British Columbia Supreme Court judge.

He was convicted in May of being involved in the smuggling of 492 asylum seekers, who arrived on British Columbia's coast aboard the MV Sun Sea in August 2010.

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His wife and six-year-old daughter, who was born in Canada, sat in the gallery near the prisoner's box where Christhurajah was seated alongside an interpreter.

"Mr. Christhurajah was himself an asylum seeker, as were all of the other passengers," Justice Catherine Wedge said during sentencing, adding they embarked on a "dangerous" journey aboard a dilapidated vessel that left Thailand six weeks earlier.

"The evidence does not establish he was a mastermind or leader on the voyage," she said.

Wedge cited two previous cases in which three Chinese men were sentenced to four years in prison for their part in bringing illegal migrants to the West Coast in 1999.

Unlike in that case, Wedge said Christhurajah and his family experienced the same conditions as the other passengers on the cargo ship that had one hold and an inadequate number of washrooms for hundreds of people.

"That's an important distinction in my view," she said of the 2001 sentences. "These Chinese nationals were not asylum seekers."

A mistrial was declared in Christhurajah's first trial in January when a jury failed to reach a verdict but acquitted three other men who had been accused of human smuggling. Christhurajah, who has been out on bail since February, was found guilty by another jury in May.

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Wedge said the evidence showed Christhurajah was not out to make a profit but was one of the owners of the ship, was involved in arranging accommodation for some migrants in Thailand and also used a false name to conceal his identity.

He provided migrants with bus tickets to get to Thailand, where they boarded the MV Sun Sea, and was seen using a satellite phone on the ship, she said, adding that while the evidence suggests money changed hands, there's nothing to suggest Christhurajah received any of it.

The Crown asked for an additional 11 years behind bars after time already served, saying the smugglers preyed on desperate people who paid thousands of dollars to escape Sri Lanka after a civil war that ended in 2009 when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam were defeated by government forces.

Wedge cited several letters of reference on Christhurajah's behalf from people who had extensive contact with him while he was detained at the Fraser Regional Correctional Centre in Maple Ridge, B.C.

She said they all establish there's virtually no risk of Christhurajah reoffending and that his character and conduct suggest he was a model prisoner.

A chaplain said in a letter that he spent hundreds of hours speaking with Christhurajah and people he interacted over seven years, and also observed the man's behaviour and attitudes.

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A worker with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which checks detention conditions and communicates with detainees, described Christhurajah as a "gentle, hard-working and articulate man" who was repeatedly identified as the most responsible participant in a work program at the facility, Wedge told the court.

She said the worker wrote that Christhurajah's most troubling concern was about his wife and child, adding he had no contact with his daughter for the first six months of her life.

Christhurajah and his lawyer, Casey Leggett, declined to comment outside court.

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