A B.C. Supreme Court judge has acquitted four Sri Lankan men on charges of human smuggling in relation to the arrival of 76 Tamil migrants on the MV Ocean Lady ship nearly nine years ago.
The ramshackle vessel traveled across the Pacific Ocean for an estimated 45 days before it arrived in B.C. in October of 2009.
Four people aboard — Francis Appulonappa, Hamalraj Handasamy, Jeyachandran Kanagarajah and Vignarajah Thevarajah — were charged with human smuggling. On Thursday, Justice Arne Silverman found all of them not guilty.
"I am satisfied that the sole motive that each of them had was, through mutual aid, to get themselves to Canada," said Justice Silverman in his 57-page decision.
Crown lawyers tried to argue that the men orchestrated the voyage to make a profit, claiming they collected money from passengers.
Justice Silverman said there was not enough evidence to prove that.
"While there is evidence of organized crime, I am not satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that the activities of any of these four accused were connected to it."
Human Smuggling laws revamped
Lawyers for the men used the argument of what's called "mutual assistance" in their defence of the charges of human smuggling.
That defence arose out of a Supreme Court of Canada judgment that ruled the country''s human smuggling laws were too broad.
The court found that two sections of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act do not apply to some people who help refugee claimants reach Canada..
"Those people who are seeking asylum, those people who are assisting their families or those people that who are mutually assisting one another to seek asylum, you cannot convict those people of human smuggling. That's an exemption that the court created," said Phil Rankin, lawyer for Jeyachandran Kanagarajah, one of the four men accused.
That defense was used in the case of the MV Sun Sea, where four men were charged with human smuggling for bringing 492 Sri Lankan migrants to B.C.'s coast in 2010.
Lesly Emmanuel, Nadarajah Mahendran and Thampeernayagam Rajaratnam were acquitted by a jury after their
lawyers argued they had acted on humanitarian grounds or had been misidentified.
A mistrial was declared for the fourth accused, Kunarobinson Christhurajah, who was found guilty at a later trial.
'We believed we were going to die'
Outside B.C. Supreme Court, one of the accused, Jeyachandran Kanagarajah, was emotional.
"I'm unable to explain my happiness, because all these days we were expecting we were going to face this decision," said Kanagarajah.
Since he arrived on the ship, Kanagarajah has been living in limbo in Canada because of the charges he was facing.
"Every single day, we were thinking about our future: how it was going to be."
Kanagarajah said he will now try to seek asylum to stay in Canada.
"We did not expect we would reach here, because most of the refugees believed that we were going to die ... there were so many storms," said Kanagarajah.