Tamil migrants aboard Ocean Lady survived despite harrowing odds, prosecutor tells bail hearing

Ocean Lady

Tamil migrants photographed on deck of the MV Ocean Lady. Submitted photo/RCMP Federal Border Integrity Program files

KEITH FRASER
VANCOUVER DESI

Tamil refugee claimants detained after arriving in a ship off the B.C. coast in 2009 survived a “Darwinian” process during their travels, a prosecutor alleges.

The 76 men aboard the MV Ocean Lady took various routes as they travelled from Sri Lanka to staging areas in Indonesia and Thailand, a bail hearing was told in 2011.

“Many of the migrants said that numerous Sri Lankan Tamils were caught by authorities in Thailand or Indonesia and sent back to Sri Lanka,” said federal prosecutor Charles Hough.

“I suggest there was a Darwinian process – survival of the fittest. I say the migrants who got on the ship were able to successfully evade the authorities in foreign countries.”

Tamil migrants

Tamil migrants embark at Ogden Point in Victoria under the careful watch of RCMP and the Canada Border Services Agency. Adrian Lam/Times Colonist files

The Vancouver bail hearing for four men accused of human smuggling was held under a publication ban.

But the ban has been lifted following a decision by a judge to strike down the human smuggling law as unconstitutional and quash the charges.

Hough told B.C. Supreme Court Justice Gregory Bowden that most of the migrants used forged passports to travel from Sri Lanka to Thailand or Indonesia, some of them crossing the border to Thailand in the trunk of a car.

A total of 24 of the men boarded the ship in Indonesia after being housed in apartments.

The migrants were told to keep a low profile and limit their time outside the apartment so as to avoid detection by the authorities and be shipped back to Sri Lanka, said Hough.

Ocean Lady

The Ocean Lady makes its way into port. Debra Brash/Times Colonist files

After setting sail from Indonesia, the ship travelled to the South China Sea, off the coast of Thailand.

A bus transported most of the remaining 52 men from Bangkok to a port south of the Thai capital, where they boarded two trawlers to take them to the Ocean Lady.

One of the trawlers ran into rough waters and at one point it seemed they were lost at sea, said Hough.

Due to the rough conditions, they could not board directly from the trawler to the ship and had to jump into the water and swim to the ship, clinging to a rope before being hauled aboard.

Once aboard, documents and cellphones not already confiscated were turned over.

Court heard that two of the accused – Hamalraj Handasamy and Vignarajah Thevarajah – were the captain and chief engineer, respectively, and in charge of the Ocean Lady.

Refugee boat

The freight vessel Ocean Lady. Adrian Lam/Times Colonist files

Two other men on board – Francis Athonimuthu and Jeyachandran Kanagarajah – were crew members who allegedly had significant roles in organizing and arranging for the Tamil migrants to come aboard.

One of the most serious allegations was that three of the four accused – Handasamy, Thevarajah and Anthonimuthu – were members of the Tamil Tigers, which has been designated a terrorist organization by Canada.

“The Crown says the case is overwhelming against all four accused,” said Hough. “This isn’t a case where Crown is limited to one or two or three witnesses. We’ve got 72 witnesses. Human smuggling in this case was on a massive scale. It placed a tremendous burden on the immigration system.

“There is evidence which I’ve gone through linking the boat and at least three of the four accused to a terrorist organization.”

A Canadian Border Services officer walks on the Ocean Lady. Ward Perrin/PNG files

The migrants allegedly paid up to $40,000 for the 45-day voyage to Canada, with $5,000 paid up front and the rest to be collected in Canada.

Hough said that a week after the ship departed for Canada, the migrants were told that their payments had been stolen and they would have to pay again or else be removed from the ship.

One of the migrants who balked at paying any more money was told he or his family would be killed if the money wasn’t paid, he said.

That migrant identified three of the accused as Tamil Tigers and said he knew their nicknames, said Hough.

“This incident caused much consternation,” said the prosecutor. “Migrants were crying and were very upset. As you can imagine, they came all this way to be told you have to leave because somebody stole your money.”

After assurances were made that the additional money would be paid, the migrants were allowed to stay on board.

Ocean Lady on way to dock

The Ocean Lady on its way into dock. Debra Brash/Times Colonist files

Lawyers for the accused denied that their clients were terrorists, saying the Crown’s evidence was based on one migrant’s assertions and unreliable.

One defence lawyer claimed that her client was jailed by Sri Lankan authorities for more than two years and tortured every day.

“When I say tortured, I don’t want to be too graphic but one of the lesser things was to put a petrol-soaked plastic bag over his head and set it alight,” said lawyer Fiona Begg.

The four accused and eight other migrants who worked as crew members slept in cabins and the rest were in the cargo hold for the voyage.

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The ship wasn’t designed for crossing oceans and the migrants feared it would capsize as it tossed around in storms, said Hough.

A few days before their arrival in Canada, cellphones, maps and passports were thrown overboard and the migrants were instructed to destroy any documents on them, he said.

The Crown argued that the accused were a flight risk, might tamper with or intimidate witnesses and should be detained.

But the judge noted that all four accused had 18 months earlier been released after being initially detained and had abided by their conditions of release.

He said while the Crown said the case was overwhelming, there was no apparent change in the evidence since the ship was apprehended and ordered the accused released.

In January, another judge, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Arne Silverman, found the human smuggling law was overbroad because it targetted some people – including humanitarian workers – who the Crown had no intention of prosecuting.

He suspended the declaration of invalidity of the law for 30 days so the Crown could take the matter to the B.C. Court of Appeal.

The judge also quashed the charges against the four accused, all of whom now live in Toronto and have made refugee claims which have not yet been dealt with.

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