Four Sri Lankan men accused of bringing dozens of Tamil migrants to Canada aboard a dilapidated cargo vessel eight years ago have been found not guilty of human smuggling.
Prosecutors argued that Francis Anthonimuthu Appulonappa, Hamalraj Handasamy, Jeyachandran Kanagarajah and Vignarajah Thevarajah helped organize the trafficking operation to profit from people looking for asylum in Canada.
But Justice Arne Silverman of the Supreme Court of British Columbia said the Crown failed to prove its case.
“I am also not satisfied that their actions were to obtain either directly or indirectly a financial or material benefit, or that any of the them obtained one,” he said while delivering his verdict in Vancouver.
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The four men smiled, laughed and shook hands after the judge released his ruling in Vancouver.
The accused were part of a group of 76 young men who arrived on B.C.’s coast from Sri Lanka on the MV Ocean Lady in October 2009. The migrants were seeking refuge in Canada from a civil war that was ravaging their homeland, Silverman said in his decision.
The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 2015 that people providing humanitarian aid, including family members, should not be captured by smuggling laws.
The Crown argued the top court’s exemptions didn’t apply because the accused helped organize and execute the voyage, which cost migrants thousands of dollars.
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Silverman said that while there was evidence of organized criminal activity in the smuggling operation, he wasn’t satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that the men were connected to any crime.
“I have determined that these four accused were asylum seekers and that there is an air of reality to the defence of mutual aid.”
READ MORE: Human smuggling charges dismissed against four men in B.C. courtroom
Phil Rankin, a lawyer for Kanagarajah, said he doesn’t expect the acquittal will prompt a surge in the number of asylum seekers making the dangerous ocean voyage.
“I think it’s a good message,” he said, speaking outside court. “The message is that those who profit should be prosecuted and those who seek asylum should not be prosecuted.
“You shouldn’t be convicted of trafficking because you attempted to get your wife and children and family and friends here.”
Kanagarajah, who was accused of helping some of the migrants travel to the MV Ocean Lady, said he doesn’t have the words to explain how happy he is with the judge’s decision.
Speaking outside court, Kanagarajah described how he and the other migrants were convinced partway through the ocean journey they would not survive.
“Most of the refugees believed that we were going to die, because there were so many storms, and the sea was very rough,” he said. “Fortunately we are here today.”
Kanagarajah said he still wants to become a Canadian citizen and plans to go to college to study business.