British Columbia

B.C. judge to deliberate fate of Sri Lankan man convicted of human smuggling

The fate of a Sri Lankan man convicted of human smuggling for his role in the voyage of the MV Sun Sea from Thailand to the B.C. coast is now in the hands of a B.C. Supreme Court judge.

Sentencing hearing for Kunarobinson Christhurajah concluded Friday in B.C. Supreme Court

Migrants look over the side of the MV Sun Sea after it was escorted into CFB Esquimalt in Colwood, B.C., on Friday, Aug. 13, 2010. The dilapidated cargo ship transported 492 Tamil migrants to Vancouver island. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

The fate of a Sri Lankan man convicted of human smuggling for his role in the voyage of the MV Sun Sea from Thailand to the B.C. coast is now in the hands of a B.C. Supreme Court judge.

The vessel arrived in B.C. waters in 2010 with 492 Tamil migrants seeking asylum.

The sentencing hearing for Kunarobinson Christhurajah concluded Friday in B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver with submissions from his lawyer. Of all the migrants charged with human smuggling, Christhurajah was the only one to be convicted.

Christhurajah has been out on bail since February 2017 after serving more than six years in jail.

Crown lawyers are seeking a lengthy prison sentence of 18 years.

With credit for time served, that would mean Christhurajah would serve 11 years in prison. Meanwhile, Christhurajah's lawyer is seeking a significantly lighter sentence of four years, which means he would not serve any additional prison time.

During submissions on Friday, Christhurajah's lawyer, Casey Leggett, told the court his client has already served more time than he should have.

"However way you quantify the credit given to him, he has already served well in excess of the upper limit of the range established by our courts," said Leggett, who denied the Crown's claims there was sufficient evidence to prove Christhurajah was one of the masterminds of the MV Sun Sea voyage and benefited financially from passengers who paid a fee to be on the ship.

Leggett argued Christhurajah's motive for embarking on the voyage is a mitigating factor.

"It can't be disputed that the primary purpose ... was simply to help himself, his family and his fellow countrymen flee persecution," said Leggett.

Christhurajah made the voyage on the MV Sun Sea with his wife, who gave birth to his daughter while he was in jail.

He now lives in Metro Vancouver with both of them. Leggett told the court Friday Christhurajah had to wait until his daughter was six years old before he could hold her for the first time.

8-year journey

Friday's court proceedings mark the end of court proceedings related to human smuggling on the MV Ocean Lady and the MV Sun Sea —  nearly eight years after the arrival of the first ship [MV Ocean Lady] in October of 2009.

Last month, four men were acquitted of human smuggling charges related to the MV Ocean Lady.

Christhurajah's conviction and sentencing will mark the end of the court battles related to the MV Sun Sea.

"It's taken an incredibly long time," said Phil Rankin, a lawyer who specializes in immigration law. He also defended Jeyachandran Kanagarajah, one of the four men acquitted in the MV Ocean lady trial earlier this year.

"Our system is slow, probably too slow, but I think it was necessary. We had to go through the process or else we would have had many people prosecuted."

Rankin said the MV Sun Sea case changed Canada's human smuggling laws by allowing an exemption from prosecution for people who are simply helping others seek asylum or flee persecution.

Phil Rankin, outside B.C. Supreme court in July 2017 where his client, Jeyachandran Kanagarajah, was acquitted of charges of human smuggling. (Mike Zimmer)

The 2015 Supreme Court of Canada decision ruled existing human smuggling laws in the country were too broad.

"I think for the system, it's given some flexibility to the court by not changing the law but giving relief to take the pressure off when you have the wrong people under the gun."

A B.C. Supreme Court judge will deliver Christhurajah's sentence Sept. 11.