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British Columbia Sun Sea voyage was a humanitarian service to Tamil migrants: defence

The MV Sun Sea, carrying 492 people from Sri Lanka, is escorted into a B.C. port by Canadian Forces vessels in August, 2010.

Master Corporal Angela Abbey/Canadian Forces

Defence lawyers made their final pitch to the jury at a human-smuggling trial Thursday, arguing their clients provided humanitarian assistance to Sri Lankan Tamils fleeing persecution in a country ravaged by civil war, challenging the Crown's view that the accused illegally organized the MV Sun Sea's arrival in Canada.

Kunarobinson Christhurajah, Lesly Emmanuel, Nadarajah Mahendran and Thampeernayagam Rajaratnam have each been charged under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act with organizing the cargo ship's voyage across the Pacific. The MV Sun Sea docked in B.C. in August, 2010, carrying 492 people – 380 men, 63 women and 49 children. The ship was the second Tamil migrant vessel to arrive in the province in less than a year and drew considerable attention.

The trial for the four men began in B.C. Supreme Court in October and closing arguments started Thursday.

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Casey Leggett, the lawyer representing Mr. Christhurajah, reminded the jury it heard from 10 Crown witnesses who were aboard the ship. Mr. Leggett said those witnesses described the horrific violence they had endured in Sri Lanka – one man testified his younger sister was killed when their house was hit by a bomb, another said he was tortured by police and others described fleeing to refugee camps or young men being taken away in white vans and never heard from again.

Mr. Leggett said there is no evidence his client profited financially from the voyage. He said Mr. Christhurajah has been accused of helping passengers find accommodation before the trip and handing out food, among other things. However, Mr. Leggett said dozens of people volunteered and did whatever they could to ensure the MV Sun Sea and its passengers safely made it to Canada.

"My submission is that there is no evidence from which you could draw the conclusion that my client, Mr. Christhurajah, was not acting for a humanitarian purpose," he said.

The Crown is expected to provide its closing argument Friday.

Sandy Ross, counsel for Mr. Emmanuel, told the court two exceptions to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act apply to his client. He said Mr. Emmanuel's conduct was for a humanitarian purpose and was a case in which one asylum seeker provided mutual assistance to other asylum seekers. Mr. Leggett also characterized the journey as one of mutual assistance.

"[Mr. Emmanuel] acted as the captain of the ship, he navigated the ship to Canada," Mr. Ross said. "It was to help the people, the other Sri Lankans on board, people with children, people concerned about their safety in Sri Lanka, to reach Canada."

Mr. Emmanuel was the only one of the accused to testify in the case. He said he paid a $15,000 (U.S.) deposit to board the MV Sun Sea and was only supposed to be a passenger. He said he had marine experience and agreed to steer the ship after the crew, made up of Thai nationals, deserted the vessel before the voyage began.

The Crown suggested Mr. Emmanuel had opportunities to get off the vessel but did not take them. It also questioned him extensively about when, where and how he paid the deposit.

The Crown has alleged Mr. Mahendran and Mr. Rajaratnam, who are Canadian and weren't on board the ship, acted as agents and helped organize the voyage.

Mark Nohra, the lawyer representing Mr. Mahendran, told the court Thursday the central issue in his client's case is identification. He said the Crown has not proven beyond a reasonable doubt it was Mr. Mahendran who helped passengers board the MV Sun Sea.

A lawyer for Mr. Rajaratnam is, like the Crown, expected to make her closing submission Friday.

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