Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Canadian raised funds for Tamil Tigers, RCMP alleges

The RCMP says an Ontario man who was scheduled to appear in a Vancouver courtroom this morning to face Canada's first terrorism financing charge was collecting money for Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers.

Prapaharan Thambithurai is accused of collecting money from ethnic Tamils in B.C.'s Lower Mainland that was destined for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, a foreign terrorist organization under Canadian law.

A senior B.C. counter-terrorism officer said Mr. Thambithurai, aka "Prapa," was soliciting donations for the World Tamil Movement (WTM), which police say is the leading Tamil Tigers front organization in Canada.

"There's no doubt he was collecting funds for the WTM, ultimately with the linkage to the LTTE," said Superintendent Lloyd Plante, head of B.C.'s counter-terrorism squad, the Integrated National Security Enforcement Team.

He called the charge a "first for Canada."

Mr. Thambithurai is a resident of Maple, Ont., north of Toronto. A spokesman for the Canadian Tamil Congress, David Poopalapillai, said he did not know the 45-year-old, whom police said was a Canadian citizen.

"Collecting money for the Tigers is unlawful activity," said Mr. Poopalapillai, who speaks for one of Canada's most prominent Tamil community groups. "The Canadian Tamil Congress, we don't condone any illegal activity."

But many Canadian Tamils are at least sympathetic to the Tigers, who have been fighting a long-standing guerrilla war against the Sri Lankan government for a separate state for the country's ethnic Tamil minority.

Canada is home to the world's largest expatriate Sri Lankan Tamil community, and the RCMP and Canadian Security Intelligence Service have long alleged that front organizations based in Toronto have been secretly sending money to the Tigers to help them buy weapons.

The World Tamil Movement is considered by police to be the main LTTE front organization in the country. Ottawa has been trying to deport the group's former coordinator, Manickavasagam Suresh, alleging he sent money to the Tigers to buy military equipment.

Two years ago, after the Conservatives put the Tigers on Canada's list of banned terrorist groups, the RCMP raided WTM offices in Montreal and Toronto, carting away material police said was evidence of terrorist fundraising.

But while the investigation, called Project Osaluki, continues, there had been no charges until last Friday night, when police in B.C. arrested Mr. Thambithurai. He was remanded into custody on Sunday.

"This is a first," Supt. Plante said. "We certainly want to get the message out to the Sri Lankan community that this activity can't be condoned, it's illegal."

Police are still investigating and were encouraging witnesses to come forward.

The RCMP raided a WTM office in Vancouver in 2005, following allegations that money raised to help victims of the South Asian tsunami had been diverted to the Tigers, but no arrests were made at that time.

The Tamil Tigers are one of the world's leading proponents of suicide bombings and are the only terrorist group to have successfully assassinated two world leaders, including India's Rajiv Gandhi.

In Western countries, the Tigers use aggressive fundraising tactics to finance their civil war.

Human Rights Watch accused the WTM of using pressure tactics against Canadian Tamils to raise funds, but police had been unable to lay charges, partly because witnesses were afraid to come forward.

The arrest comes amid a sharp escalation in fighting between the Sri Lankan security forces and the Tamil Tigers. Sri Lanka has vowed to defeat the Tigers, who hold territory in the country's north, by the end of the year, but human rights groups have complained that government forces are responsible for widespread abuses such as civilian deaths, arbitrary arrests and "disappearances."

by Stewart Bell, National Post