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Tamil Canadians in prison for arming rebels renounce violence


Michelle Siu for National PostSarachandran Shunmugan talks about his jailed son.

Five years after they were caught buying arms for Sri Lankan rebels, three Canadians have signed an open letter from prison acknowledging they were wrong and renouncing political violence.

“We incorrectly believed that violence could achieve the goals that we sought,†they wrote. “We now realize that what we did was not helpful in leading to a positive resolution of the issues that existed in Sri Lanka.â€

The rejection of armed militancy is a complete reversal for the Toronto men, who were part of the international weapons procurement network that supplied the Tamil Tigers, or LTTE, during Sri Lanka’s long civil war.

But since being caught in New York shopping for $1-million worth of surface-to-air missiles and AK-47 assault rifles — a crime that earned them sentences of at least 25 years — the men have apparently had a change of heart.

“Each of us has come to the conclusion that the criminal activity for which we have been sentenced has caused much harm to all citizens of Sri Lanka,†wrote Sathajhan Sarachandran, Thiruthanikan Thanigasalam and Sahilal Sabaratnam.

“We incorrectly believed that supporting LTTE ideology on armed violence would bring peace to Tamil people. We refrain from those believes [sic] now,†reads the joint letter signed by each of them at their prison in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Aug. 21. The letter, obtained exclusively by the National Post, was to be released publicly in the coming days.

The repudiation of political violence is the first of its kind to emerge from Canadians actively involved in supporting the Tamil Tigers, a federally banned armed separatist group that has long been active in Toronto.

It comes as their families in Ontario are seeking mercy for the inmates, such as prisoner transfers to Canada or Sri Lanka. And it raises a difficult question for the government: Do those involved in terrorism deserve leniency if they repent?

Some experts argue that when high-profile former militants publicly disavow their past actions, it can help undercut armed groups by attacking the narrative used to justify violence and attract new recruits.

“A public repentance, a public disassociation from the group, can actually undermine the legitimacy and attractiveness of being involved in the group for others, particularly when those doing the defecting tend to have blood on their hands,†said John Horgan, director of the International Center for the Study of Terrorism at Pennsylvania State University.

Coming two years after the end of fighting between Sri Lankan forces and the Tamil Tigers, who raised millions in Canada for their cause and were cheered on by flag-waving supporters in Toronto and Ottawa, the repudiations are significant because of the positions the men once held.

Sarachandran, 31, is the former president of the Tamil Youth Organization’s Toronto chapter, while Sabaratnam, 32, was communications director of the Canadian Tamil Congress, the leading Tamil organization in the country.Thanigasalam, 43, is his brother-in-law.

“Here you have three individuals who are willing to take a very public position, who can affect not only people in Sri Lanka but the larger Tamil community outside of Sri Lanka, since they are Canadian nationals,†their New York lawyer, Lee Ginsberg, said in an interview.

In addition to their joint statement, they have each written longer, more personal letters that urge ethnic Tamils in Canada to abandon the armed separatist campaign and to instead work to rebuild Sri Lanka. (Full letters embedded at the bottom of the article.)

“Let us not even for a second talk about arms again,†Thanigasalam wrote. “Let us learn something from all this. War is not the answer to anything. We have made a grave mistake for our people by supporting an armed resistance.†In his letter, Sabaratnam wrote that, “Blood is not the answer to anything.†Wrote Sarachandran: “I ask that none of you choose a path where violence is encouraged.â€

Facing another 16 years’ imprisonment (federal convicts must serve at least 85% of their sentences), the men are, with Mr. Ginsberg’s help, seeking to be transferred out of the United States. Canada has a prisoner-transfer treaty with the United States, but Ottawa would have to agree to take them back.

Alternatively, they have been looking into transfers to Sri Lanka, where they were born. Since the Sri Lankan civil war ended in 2009, almost all the roughly 11,000 Tamil Tigers rebels captured during the conflict have been rehabilitated and released. The three Canadians are hoping Sri Lanka will take them back and give them the same treatment.

“They are Canadian citizens, but it’s not all that clear what Canada’s position would be, what political interests they have in accepting them,†Mr. Ginsberg said. “We’re sort of hoping and taking the position that the Sri Lankan government should have the same interests … in my clients as they do in Sri Lankan nationals who had been involved in violent activities on behalf of the LTTE, and the same desire to see them rehabilitated — and possibly even more so, because their cases may have gotten more notoriety.â€

Sitting at a dining-room table in the Toronto suburb of Markham, Sarachandran’s father, Sarachandran Shunmugan, said he was unaware his son was involved with the rebels until he heard about the arrests on the radio.

He does not dispute that what his son did was wrong but he believes there are grounds for leniency: the war is over; the Tamil Tigers were defeated; and giving his son a second chance would be seen by Tamils as a goodwill gesture that would help post-war reconciliation efforts.

In May, Mr. Shunmugan co-founded a non-profit group called Mercy for Tamil Prisoners. Its mission is to advocate for those detained as a result of the Sri Lankan conflict, but all three directors are relatives of Sarachandran, Thanigasalam and Sabaratnam.

The families have been supporting humanitarian work in Sri Lanka, but they also have met with senior Sri Lankan officials in recent months to make their case for leniency. They said the country’s powerful defence secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, had assured them Sri Lanka was open to their proposals.

To lay the groundwork for their campaign, the families have begun releasing the men’s letters of repentance. It is not a message some want to hear. Since his son’s letter was posted on the Mercy for Tamil Prisoners website, Mr. Shunmugan said he has received angry calls from as far away as France berating him for hurting the Tamil cause.

The families say their sons’ renunciation of the armed revolt needs to be heard because Tamil separatist sentiment lingers in Canada. A declassified 2010 Canadian intelligence report obtained by the National Post comes to the same conclusion: “In spite of the LTTE’s military defeat, Tamils around the world, generally, remain committed to the creation of an independent state, called Tamil Eelam, providing financial and ideological support to this end.â€

Mr. Shunmugan was a physics teacher in northern Sri Lanka when the war became unbearable. The family home in Jaffna City was close to an artillery base and shells soared overhead.

He left in 1989. The rest of the family joined him in Canada three years later, when his son was 12. In 1998, the father was working as a Toronto parking lot attendant when he was hit by a car. He was in a coma for six days and suffered a crippling stroke.

Sarachandran earned a computer science degree from the University of Windsor in 2002 before returning to Toronto to work at the Tamil Youth Organization, a non-profit group he now acknowledges was “part of†the Tamil Tigers network.

“During these times, I was misled by so many community well-wishers,†Sarachandran wrote in his letter. He said advocates of the armed conflict fuelled his anger. “Meetings after meetings, campaign after campaign, all injecting hate into me and other fellow students.â€

He made several trips to Sri Lanka, taking advantage of a short-lived ceasefire. He toured the island and helped at an orphanage, but he also became closely involved with the Tamil Tigers. Photos the RCMP found on his computer show him posing with a heavy machine gun and firing a rifle at a rebel camp.

Upon his return to Canada, he flew to New York to meet a contact he thought was a black market arms dealer. Sarachandran told him he wanted to buy missiles and that he was working for the rebel intelligence and operations chief, Pottu Amman.

He returned to New York by car on Aug. 18, 2006, this time with Thanigasalam, who prosecutors said was a weapons expert, and Sabaratnam, the financial expert. Unaware it was a sting operation, they negotiated to purchase 500 AK-47s, 20 SA-18 missiles and 10 missile launchers, as well as the services of a trainer.

They were arrested and pleaded guilty to terrorism and conspiracy. Three others were arrested in Canada on related charges. (One has since been extradited to the United States to stand trial. The other two have challenged their extradition orders to the Supreme Court of Canada.)

The 160-word joint letter they signed in prison is titled, “A New Beginning.†But that may be wishful thinking. Transfer to a Canadian prison could be a non-starter. The families said they hope to meet Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, who would have to approve their sons’ transfers.

But Sharryn Aiken, a Queen’s University law professor, is doubtful. “It’s going to be tough because we’ve got a government that’s proven to be somewhat unresponsive to prisoner-transfer requests in circumstances of offences that are arguably much more minor offences.â€

Some also doubt Sri Lanka will follow through and wonder whether the government is exploiting the Canadians to undermine Tamil militancy in the diaspora and bolster Colombo’s image as it faces accusations of war crimes.

“It’s possible,†Mr. Ginsberg said, “but at the end of the day, besides the fact that the clients feel the way they do and wanted to make these statements, you have to sometimes take it on faith that it’s being done for the right reasons when you’re facing a 25-year jail sentence.â€

Even if the odds are against them, the families feel they have to try. Mr. Shunmugan walks with a cane, the nagging effect of the stroke. He said Sarachandran is the eldest son and is needed to care for the family. “I am passing 63 years old. I am a very sick guy,†he said.

“My son, I want him here in Canada.â€

National Post

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