The man who captained a Tamil migrant vessel that arrived in Canada six-plus years ago says he paid $15,000 to board and was only supposed to be a passenger.
Lesly Emmanuel, Kunarobinson Christhurajah, Nadarajah Mahendran and Thampeernayagam Rajaratnam have each been charged under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act with organizing the voyage of the MV Sun Sea, which docked in British Columbia in August, 2010, carrying 492 Sri Lankan Tamils – 380 men, 63 women and 49 children. The ship was the second migrant vessel to arrive in the province in less than a year and drew considerable attention.
The jury trial for the four men began in B.C. Supreme Court in October and the Crown wrapped its case last week. The defence started Monday and Sandy Ross, the lawyer representing Mr. Emmanuel, called his client to the stand. The Crown has not yet had an opportunity to cross-examine him.
Mr. Ross, in a statement to the jury before Mr. Emmanuel took the stand, described the MV Sun Sea voyage as "a collective flight to safety."
Mr. Emmanuel, who is 42 and was born in northern Sri Lanka, told the court he was shot by a member of that country's army in 1995, when he was among a group of Tamils who attempted to run away from government forces. He said he was shot in the arm and nearly had it amputated. His girlfriend was shot in the stomach in the same incident and died in hospital, he said.
Mr. Emmanuel said his mother later told him she had been asked by an army official if he was a member of the sea branch of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which had opposed government forces in a decades-long civil war. Mr. Emmanuel said Monday he has never been a member of the Tamil Tigers. He said the conversation with his mother led him to believe it could be dangerous for him to return to Sri Lanka.
After the shooting, Mr. Emmanuel said he studied at a marine college in Malaysia and was in Thailand in late 2009 on a tourist visa, looking for work, when he heard from others attending a local temple about a migrant ship that would be destined for Canada. Mr. Emmanuel said he later met one of the trip's organizers and was told it would cost $30,000 (U.S.) for him to travel to Canada, with $15,000 due as a deposit. He said he did not have the money himself but was able to obtain it from an uncle.
Mr. Emmanuel said he was taken to and boarded the MV Sun Sea, which was stationed off the Thai coast, in April, 2010.
"I thought I was going to be one of the passengers," he told the court through an interpreter.
He said the ship was being operated by a five-person crew of Thai nationals. But he said the crew got into a heated argument a few days after he boarded and all five crew members left on another vessel. He said he did not know what their argument was about.
Meanwhile, Mr. Emmanuel said, more and more migrants were being dropped at the MV Sun Sea by trip organizers.
He said about 170 Tamils were on the ship in late May, 2010, when the MV Sun Sea was involved in an incident with the Royal Thai Navy. He said the navy told the MV Sun Sea to leave Thai waters and a warning shot was fired in his boat's direction, causing considerable distress for the Tamils on board.
Mr. Emmanuel said he then operated the boat for the first time, sailing it away from Thailand, and it was off the coast of Vietnam in early July, 2010, when the decision was made to finally set sail for Canada.
Mr. Emmanuel also said that passengers were coming up to him and asking him to captain the ship to Canada.
He said he had been concerned about taking the MV Sun Sea to Canada, because it was an old ship and had not been properly maintained, but people on board were eager to begin the journey.
He said there were also women and children on board, and everyone could not just remain on the water.