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Canada probes Tamil smuggling claim
Sri Lankan rebels accused of funding asylum-seekers' voyage to North America.
Last Modified: 17 Aug 2010 14:08 GMT
Canadian officials suspect Tamil rebels of paying for the migrants's voyage to North America [Reuters]

Canadian authorities are investigating claims that Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels financed the passage of about 500 migrants to the North American country last week.

Vic Toews, the Canadian public safety minister, told local media that the passengers were charged up to $48,000 each for a berth aboard the cargo ship MV Sun Sea.

In an interview published on Monday with the Globe and Mail newspaper, Toews said that members of Canada's 300,000-strong Tamil community may have helped fund their passage.

He said Sri Lanka's outlawed Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) movement could have organised the voyage.

"Obviously [the Royal Canadian Mounted Police] will follow every connection between the payment of money and those who received it," Toews told the newspaper.

'Human smuggling'

Toews said all those aboard the MV Sun Sea have requested asylum since arriving in Canada's Pacific coast province of British Columbia on Friday.

Canada and other Western nations have been critical of Sri Lanka's human rights record, but consider the LTTE - defeated last year after a two-decades long war- to be a terrorist organisation.

However, David Poopalapillai, a spokesman for the Canadian Tamil Congress, disputed that any of the migrants are members of the LTTE.

"The Tigers have gone," he said.

"The Sri Lankan government is trying to keep Tigers in the media just to justify atrocities."

Detention hearings

The first of several detention hearings began on Monday to decide whether the migrants will be detained or released pending their eventual asylum decision.

Katpana Nagendra, the British Columbia representative for the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam, a group lobbying for independence in north and east Sri Lanka, said they asked for the detention hearings to be open to the public.

"We hope that by having these hearings public we're able to ... show ... that human rights violations did occur and still continue to occur in [Sri Lanka]"

Katpana Nagendra, Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam

"We're not worried about the way the Canadian authorities have dealt with the case," she told Al Jazeera from Vancouver.

"What we are worried is that there may be information the refugees may have regarding human rights violations that took place near the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka in May 2009.

"We hope that by having these hearings public we're able to learn more about this information and show to the global community that human rights violations did occur and still continue to occur in the north and east of the island."

She said her group will respect the wish of any migrant who wishes the hearings to be closed for reasons of safety either in Canada or in Sri Lanka.

"But if certain individuals come forward and ask for their hearings to be open to the public and media then we will take the necessary precautions and seek legal counsel regarding that."

The Canada Border Services Agency has processed 492 migrants – 380 men, 63 women and 49 children.

On Saturday, Canadian authorities said the migrants were in good condition, despite a three-month journey aboard the rusty 59-metre Thai-registered cargo ship.

Canadian Tamils have urged authorities to accept the asylum seekers, saying that the minority group faces continued discrimination at the hands of the majority Sinhalese.

The Sri Lankan government maintains that the ship was a people-smuggling operation by the defeated Tamil Tigers.

Sri Lankan government forces ended decades of civil war in May 2009 by crushing the rebels in a bloody finale in which the United Nations says at least 7,000 civilians were killed.

Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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