French crackdown

Print edition : May 04, 2007

Policemen leave the office of the Tamil Coordination Committee in Paris after a search on April 1.-STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP

The LTTE's operations in Europe receive a severe jolt with the arrest of many of its activists by the French police.

IN the first week of April, the French law-enforcement authorities conducted a series of well-planned and coordinated actions against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Fourteen Tamils of Sri Lankan origin, suspected of being linked to the organisation, were produced at a special counter-terrorism tribunal in Paris and placed in judicial custody under a preventive detention order on April 5. A special four-member panel of examining magistrates filed preliminary charges and ordered that they be held in detention for 120 days pending further investigation.

Under French law, the filing of preliminary charges means that the investigating magistrates have determined that there is strong and concordant evidence to suggest involvement in a crime. It gives the four examining magistrates further time to pursue their probe before they decide whether to send the suspects for further trial or drop the case. The police will be authorised to continue with their investigations and gather more evidence.

Initially, 19 persons were arraigned on multiple charges including "extorsion, violences physiques et sequestration contre des Tamouls installes en France" (extortion, physical violence and illegal confinement against Tamils settled in France). They were also charged with "financing terrorism" and "criminal association with a terrorist enterprise". The LTTE was cited as the terrorist organisation concerned.

Four of the 19 were released unconditionally. Another person was issued a conditional release under judicial supervision. Hence, proceedings will continue against 15 persons.

The courts also authorised the police to search the homes, offices, business establishments, vehicles, and all movable and immovable assets of the detained suspects. The detainees are suspected to have raised funds for the LTTE from Tamils residing in France. Since the LTTE is a proscribed terrorist organisation in France since May 2006 when the European Union issued a ban on it, raising funds for it is a crime. In this case, allegations of extortion, physical violence and illegal confinement have further compounded the gravity of the charges against them.

The investigation into LTTE activity in France was launched in February 2006. In August, a committee of inquiry was formally appointed. Both the police and the prosecutors of the Justice Ministry are involved in the investigation, which is supervised and directed by Sous-Directorate Anti-Terroriste (SDAT), the special anti-terrorist directorate of the French Interior Ministry.

The SDAT interacted with several agencies that are into anti-terrorist operations, while investigating the LTTE. Information was requested, obtained and furnished and compared with agencies in the U.S., the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Canada, Australia and also Sri Lanka. Expert knowledge was supplied by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of the U.S., Scotland Yard of London and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), Canada's national police force. Police officials from some of these countries were present in Paris when the crackdown was made.

The police made a dawn swoop at 4-00 a.m. on April 1 and took into custody 39 suspected LTTE activists for questioning. The arrests were made from Seine-et-Marne, en Seine-Saint-Denis, dans les Yvelines, La Courneuve, and le Val-de-Marne et le Val-d'Oise in Paris and also from the suburbs.

Acting under instructions of the SDAT, 210 policemen conducted lightning raids on LTTE-controlled establishments and residences of important LTTE activists. Among the establishments raided were the headquarters of the Tamil Co-ordinating Committee (TCC) of France situated at 341, Rue des Pyrnes in Paris.

The TCC of France is the acknowledged front organisation of the LTTE in that country. Other Tamil establishments raided in Paris include the Tamil Television Network (TTN), the Mariamman temple, the Makkal Kadai supermarket, the office of the Eelamurasu newspaper, the Tamil Achagam printing press and the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) office.

Computers, correspondence files, documents, account ledgers, books, videos and pamphlets were seized. Hard currency and cheques for 23,500 euros and 42,000 euros were confiscated from the TCC and TRO premises respectively. The LTTE fund-raising drives usually commence on Friday evening and go on till Sunday evening. About 60,000 euros in cash and 25,000 euros in cheques were found at the residences of activists. Of the 39 arrested, 22 were released on April 1 itself, after preliminary interrogation. The next day, another two were released.

On April 2, another operation was launched at 10-00 a.m. Policemen cordoned off La Chappelle and Marcadet-Poissenniers areas, where the bulk of Tamil-owned businesses (around 60) in Paris are located. The businesses were searched and their owners, employees and some customers were quizzed. Materials and products connected to the LTTE, such as newspapers, magazines, CDs, videos, DVDs, books and photographs, were seized. Twenty people were taken in for further interrogation. All but two were released that evening.

April 3 and April 4 also saw the police continuing the crackdown. The "Gare du Nord" area, known as "Little Jaffna", came under particular scrutiny. Alleged members of the LTTE's fund-raising network in France were interviewed and videographed at their homes. Houses, vehicles and other assets belonging to them were also photographed and videographed. One person was detained on each day. A total of 19 suspects were produced in court on April 5.

LTTE chief Velupillai Prabakaran with members of his new air wing, which carried out an audacious attack on Sri Lanka's main military air base near Colombo in March.-LTTE/HO/AFP

It is important to note that no Tamil of Sri Lankan origin was used for translation purposes during the investigation or the arrests. The exhaustive wiretaps were translated by Tamils of Indian origin. Substantial numbers of Tamils from Puducherry are domiciled in France. This action prevented leaks to the LTTE, it is said.

Among those remanded are the LTTE's chief in Paris, Nadaraja Matheenthiran alias Parithi alias Regan. Also arrested was its politics and propaganda chief for Europe, Duraisamy Aravindhan alias Metha. While Parithi has a French passport, Metha holds an Italian passport.

Others include LTTE-France finance secretary Thuraisamy Jeyamoorthy alias Sinna Jeyan aka Jeyan, "Makkal Kadai" manager Sellakkolunthu Ravikulan, Parithi's private secretary Sinnathamby Suthakaran, and TRO accountant Kandiah Mohandas Also remanded were LTTE-France sports secretary Venthan, business secretary Mohan, temple trustee and TRO secretary Vinayagamoorthy alias Bala Master aka "Thongal", TCC office administrator Mahesh, and Parthiban, who owns a farmhouse on the outskirts of Paris. The farmhouse was allegedly used to confine Tamils illegally and extort money from them. Mahesh is said to be the brother of senior LTTE commander "Col." Bhanu, while Mohan is said to be the sibling of former Eelamurasu editor Gajan, who was shot dead at La Chappelle some years ago.

An interesting development after the raids was that several Tamils came on television and boldly stated that they were intimidated by the LTTE and forced into giving money to it. Some displayed receipts given in the name of the LTTE-France branch and carrying the printed signature of Tiger supremo Velupillai Prabakaran.

The action by the French authorities may have come as a surprise to many in Sri Lanka and abroad. However, it was hardly a surprise to those who have observed the irrational and self-defeating conduct of the Tigers within and outside Sri Lanka. An insular, arrogant hierarchy in a state of disconnect with reality is rapidly leading the movement downhill. This is becoming clearly visible now.

The Tamil population in Paris is said to number around 60,000 while the overall number of Tamils in France is reportedly 70,000. Of them, 25 per cent are hardcore LTTE supporters, while 25 per cent are firmly anti-LTTE. The remaining 50 per cent do not have any hard positions on the LTTE.

The LTTE in Paris has reportedly used threats, intimidation, physical violence and illegal confinement to suppress perceived anti-Tiger activity and coerce Tamil people into giving money. The job of raising funds was outsourced to Tamil gangs; 20 per cent of the money collected was given as "commissions" to them. The two prominent gangs were the "Vennilaa" group and the "Mukkaabalaa" group.

Every family had to pay a minimum of 2,000 euros annually. Businesses had to pay 6,000 euros. But there were special collections from time to time when massive amounts were demanded. It is estimated that six million euros was collected annually and 20 million euros in each special collection.

Much of this money was paid in instalments. The gangs as well as hyperactive LTTE activists heaped pressure on potential victims to extract money. They often went with rods, sticks and bottles to houses to intimidate people. Dealing out a few blows, using foul language, threatening harm to family members in Sri Lanka, and damaging vehicles and furniture were the oft-used tactics.

The worst was abducting people and holding them illegally. A farm was purchased on the outskirts of Paris for this. Tamils abducted by the gangs or LTTE activists would be taken there. Huge sums of money would be demanded from the family members of the victims for their release.

The victims detained at the farm were beaten and tortured. It is astounding that the LTTE thought it could replicate in Europe what it was doing in Sri Lanka's North-East.

The Tamil diaspora hesitated to complain to the police for a variety of reasons - fear of consequences, lack of confidence in the police, and a sense of misguided loyalty to the Tamil cause. But the bubble burst when a Tamil man, who was beaten up severely at the farmhouse, confessed to his physiotherapist how he got his injuries. The physiotherapist alerted the police and soon the SDAT came into the picture. Its officials were able to convince the victim and two other fellow victims to lodge a "confidential" complaint in November 2006.

Paris is also home to many Tamil dissidents who hate the LTTE and its methods. There was constant friction between the two sides. The anti-LTTE Tamils are less assertive and ill organised.

One young Tamil who told a TV interviewer that he was forced into giving money to the LTTE had to go into hiding after that as the Tigers began gunning for him. There is a Tamil restaurant that dissident Tamils often frequent. Its owner, a Tamil film producer, was assaulted twice for letting anti - LTTE people patronise his establishment.

With such a reservoir of anti-Tiger opinion available, it was but a matter of time before the anti-terrorism unit made contact with some dissidents. With the police unit promising security and confidentiality to them, much needed information became available to the law-enforcement authorities.

Some incidents in recent times had begun to worry the anti-terrorism directorate engaged in investigating the LTTE. On October 1 last year, TRO secretary Vinaygamoorthy was arrested on the France-Switzerland border by the Swiss police. He had 18 million euros in hard currency with him. Though he claimed that it was TRO funds raised for Tamil refugees, it was clear that the money was for the LTTE coffers. Vinayagamoorthy was released then but was arrested in the April 1 raid. In the eyes of the French police, the LTTE and the TRO are one and the same.

Another troubling incident was the burglary on March 19 at the house of Luxmy, a Tamil writer and editor of the alternative journal Uyirnizhal. Over a 100 videos, DVDs, books, tapes and documents were taken away. This was no ordinary burglary, as only material of political importance was stolen.

It has been the practice of anti-LTTE Tamils to meet thrice a year for an event called "Ilakkiya Santhippu" (literary gathering). Thirty-three such meetings have been held since 1989. All documentation, tapes, and so on regarding these meetings were with Luxmy, and these have now been stolen. Since these meetings are attended by anti-Tiger activists, it is feared that the LTTE could now identify and target them.

Although the LTTE was rapidly sliding downhill in popularity charts, the flashpoint came because of an event in Sri Lanka. The LTTE overreached itself when it announced to the world on March 26 that it had an air wing capable of precision-bombing a high-security target and returning to base after flying nocturnally an incredible distance at low altitude (Frontline, April 20). The Western world, shaken by the 9/11 events, could not tolerate a non-state actor like the LTTE having such capability.

France's recent investigations have also unearthed evidence of a French connection in the LTTE air wing. It is suspected that some small aircraft and spare parts were bought in France. It is also believed that some pilots and technicians obtained training in France. Some high-ranking French nationals were reportedly involved in arms sales to the LTTE. Against that backdrop, action had to be taken against the LTTE.

Meanwhile, pro-Tiger elements in France were reportedly engaged in a rear-guard action in the aftermath of the arrests. A petition is being circulated for signatures from Tamil people stating that they had given money willingly to the LTTE and not under duress or pressure. A protest march and rally were scheduled for April 9 at the Parvis Des Droits Trocadero square. LTTE supporters from all over Europe converged on Paris.

The police, which feared a law and order breakdown, revoked permission for the rally. The Trocadero train station was also closed. Yet more than a thousand LTTE supporters gathered at the Eiffel Tower park, defying the ban, to protest against the arrests.

Whatever the confrontational antics of the Tiger supporters, the LTTE network in Paris has received a severe jolt. An operation of this scale targeting the LTTE has not been conducted in any Western country before. The LTTE network in France was the hub of the organisation's operations in Europe.

France has set a precedent. There are indications that at least three European Union countries may follow suit soon.

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