The jury at a human-smuggling trial involving the arrival of nearly 500 Tamil migrants in British Columbia has found three of the men accused of orchestrating the voyage not guilty, but failed to reach a verdict for a man the Crown alleged owned the ship.
Kunarobinson Christhurajah, Lesly Emmanuel, Nadarajah Mahendran and Thampeernayagam Rajaratnam were each charged under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act with organizing the MV Sun Sea's voyage to Canada. The Sun Sea docked in B.C. in August, 2010, carrying 492 people – 380 men, 63 women and 49 children. The trial for the four men began in B.C. Supreme Court this past October.
The Sun Sea was the second Tamil migrant vessel to arrive in this province in less than a year and drew considerable attention. Refugee advocates have said the federal government's response to the ship marked a period that would tarnish Canada's reputation as a refugee leader for years.
The jury delivered its verdict late Wednesday, finding Mr. Emmanuel, Mr. Mahendran and Mr. Rajaratnam not guilty of all charges. However, the jury told the judge it could not reach a verdict for Mr. Christhurajah and a mistrial was declared for his case.
The Crown had told the jury Mr. Christhurajah owned the ship, and Mr. Emmanuel was its captain.
It described Mr. Mahendran and Mr. Rajaratnam – both of whom are Canadian and were not on board the vessel – as agents who helped organize the trip.
The Crown declined to comment after the verdict. A lawyer for Mr. Christhurajah could not immediately be reached.
Sandy Ross, the lawyer for Mr. Emmanuel, said of the jury: "They reached the right verdict." Mr. Emmanuel said he was "very happy" but not surprised he was found not guilty.
Mr. Rajaratnam, who lives in Ontario, said he was happy the ordeal was over and he would be able to go home.
Mark Nohra, the lawyer representing Mr. Mahendran, said "the evidence, when you break it down, for many of these accused, was very, very weak and the jury saw that."
Casey Leggett, Mr. Christhurajah's lawyer, had told the court there was no evidence his client profited financially from the voyage. He argued Mr. Christhurajah provided humanitarian assistance to Tamils fleeing persecution in Sri Lanka, a country ravaged by decades of civil war.
Mr. Emmanuel, the only one of the accused to testify, told the court he was supposed to be a passenger and paid a $15,000 (U.S.) deposit to board. He said the initial crew, made up of Thai nationals, fled before the voyage began and other passengers asked him to help because he had marine experience.
Mr. Nohra told the court the central issue in his client's case was identification. He said the Crown had not proven beyond a reasonable doubt it was Mr. Mahendran who helped passengers board the vessel.
Vicki Williams, counsel for Mr. Rajaratnam, also argued her client had been wrongly identified.
Ms. Williams later told the jury the section under which her client had been charged does not apply in three instances: when it involves humanitarian aid, when asylum-seekers are providing mutual assistance and when a person is aiding a family member.
She noted Mr. Rajaratnam had five family members on the Sun Sea: his father-in-law, mother-in-law, brother-in law and two cousins.
The trial heard from approximately 10 Crown witnesses who were on board the ship. Mr. Leggett said those witnesses described the horrific violence they had endured in Sri Lanka – one man testified his younger sister was killed when their house was hit by a bomb, another said he was tortured by police and others described fleeing to refugee camps or young men being taken away in white vans and never heard from again.
One of the witnesses was a man whose uncle died during the journey to Canada. The man said his uncle began vomiting blood and died two or three days later. The man said his life had improved since coming to Canada – he said he had been granted refugee status and was working for a window company in Ontario.
An Immigration and Refugee Board spokesperson said of the Sun Sea passengers who have had their refugee claims finalized, more than two-thirds, or 230 people, were accepted. The spokesperson said 108 people had their claims rejected, while 24 were withdrawn. More than 100 cases have not been finalized.