Trouble overseas

Print edition : July 27, 2007

From the US to Australia, governments have begun to crack down on LTTE leaders and operatives for violating anti-terrorism laws.

Fr om the US

LTTE leader Prabakaran paying tribute to LTTE suicide bombers, in the Wanni region on July 5, 2006.-AFP/HANDOUT

A STRIKINGLY recurrent phenomenon in recent times is the legal action being taken by the law-enforcement agencies of several Western nations against accredited leaders of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) among the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora. In what appears to be an orchestrated action, the LTTE is being penalised globally. From the United States to Australia, several suspected LTTE leaders and operatives have been detained by the authorities and made to undergo due legal process.

The anti-Tiger lobby in Sri Lanka and abroad has for long been complaining that Western nations have been mollycoddling the Tigers instead of firmly cracking down on the organisation. The argument has been that curbing LTTE activity overseas would impact greatly on fund-raising and arms acquisition. There are many who opine that a worldwide clampdown on the LTTE would virtually de-fang and de-claw the Tigers in northeastern Sri Lanka.

Apart from India and Malaysia in Asia, several Western nations, too, have proscribed the LTTE as a foreign terrorist organisation. The US, Canada and 25 member-states (including Britain and France) of the European Union have all formally included the LTTE in the terrorist list. Australia has also listed the LTTE in special legislation to check terrorist fund-raising.

In spite of the LTTE being banned by most Western nations, Colombo has not been happy. Legislation proscribing the LTTE was welcome, but the grouse was that Western countries were not implementing the laws strictly. LTTE operatives were, in the eyes of Colombo, having a field day garnering revenue and engaging in propaganda.

That situation seems to be changing if recent developments are any indication.

It was the sole superpower that gave the lead in this instance. In August last year, US security officials conducted a series of arrests and detained a dozen persons from Seattle, Washington, and the States of New York and New Jersey. This was the result of a sting operation in which Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) officials posed as arms dealers.

The arrests related to alleged offences such as trying to purchase surface-to-air missiles and AK 47 rifles and also attempting to bribe US officials to get the LTTE deproscribed. The US designated the LTTE a foreign terrorist organisation in 1997.

Some of those arrested were Tamils with Canadian citizenship. One person arrested in the US was a British passport holder of Sri Lankan Tamil origin. Another was a Tamil hailing from Tamil Nadu.

Canadian officials also arrested a few persons in Toronto, Missiassauga and Waterloo (all in Ontario, Canada) after their names figured in the US charge sheets. Some of those arrested in the US as well as in Canada were subsequently released on bail subject to stringent conditions.

Eleven defendants were indicted in the Eastern district of New York on charges relating to providing material support to the LTTE.

One indictment, United States v Sathajhan Sarachandran, et al., charges five individuals with attempting to purchase several dozen surface-to-air missiles and other military arms and equipment from an undercover FBI agent in Queens, New York.

The second indictment, United States v Thavarajah Pratheepan et al., charges six defendants with participating in a wide-ranging conspiracy to provide material support to the LTTE through the procurement of military arms and technology, attempting to bribe purported US State Department officials to remove the LTTE from the foreign terrorist organisation list and to sell classified intelligence concerning the LTTE, fund-raising, and the LTTE's covert payment for a US Congressman's trip to LTTE-controlled territory.

This was not all. In another sting operation, US officials arrested six Asians for allegedly trying to smuggle weapons from the US for the LTTE. Undercover agents tracked the suspects from the eastern port of Baltimore to the US South Pacific territory of Guam. Four of those arrested were Indonesians, one was a Singaporean and the sixth was a Sri Lankan Tamil, Thirunavukkarasu Varatharajah. Varatharajah was charged with conspiracy, attempting to export arms, money laundering, and illegal possession of weapons. The others faced charges ranging from conspiracy to supporting a terrorist organisation to attempting to export arms illegally. All six pleaded guilty and face stiff jail terms.

In what was perhaps a more significant act, US officials arrested Karunakaran Kandasamy aka Karuna, a New York resident, in April this year. It was alleged that Karuna was the chief of the LTTE's US operations. He is the director of the American branch of the LTTE, which is located in Queens, New York, and operates through a front organisation called the World Tamil Coordinating Committee (WTCC).

According to the US indictment, Karuna oversees and directs the LTTE's activities in the US, including fund-raising. In the summer and fall of 2004, for instance, the LTTE allegedly undertook a major worldwide campaign to raise money for its planned offensive against the Sri Lankan government in late 2005. In support of the offensive, Karuna held fund-raising events in November and December 2004 at a church and a public high school in Queens, New York, and a school in South Brunswick, New Jersey. Hundreds attended. Karuna also was responsible for arranging meetings in LTTE-controlled territory in Sri Lanka between LTTE leaders and prominent LTTE supporters from the US, the charges stated.

Robert Gates, US Secretary of Defence (left), at a meeting with Rohitha Bogollagama, Sri Lanka's Minister of Foreign Affairs, on the sidelines of the Asia Security Summit in Singapore, on June 3.-JONATHAN DRAKE/BLOOMBERG NEWS

Meanwhile, the LTTE in France, too was under strain. Fourteen Tamils of Sri Lankan origin, suspected of being linked to the LTTE, were placed in judicial custody under a preventive detention order in France on April 5 after being produced in Paris at a special counter-terrorism tribunal. A special four-member panel filed preliminary charges and ordered that they be held in detention for a period of 120 days pending further investigations.

They 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 with "criminal association with a terrorist enterprise". The LTTE was cited as the terrorist organisation in question.

Among those remanded were the LTTE branch chief in Paris, Nadaraja Matheenthiran alias Parithi alias Regan. Also arrested was politics/propaganda chief for Europe, Duraisamy Aravindhan alias Metha. While Parithi has a French passport, Metha holds an Italian one.

The action then shifted Down Under. Two residents of suburbs in Melbourne were charged with providing material support and funding to the LTTE. Aaruran Vinayagamoorthy, 32, of Mount Waverley, and Sivarajah Yathavan, 36, of Vermont South, were produced in the Melbourne Magistrates Court on the afternoon of May 1 after their arrests earlier in the day.

They were each charged with intentionally being members of a terrorist organisation and providing support and making funds available to a terrorist organisation. The offences are alleged to have occurred between July 6, 2002, and May 1, 2007.

Mark Dean SC, Commonwealth prosecutor, said the defendants collected money in Australia and sent it through various channels in Asia to the Sri Lanka-based Tamil Tigers. Dean also said the pair supported the organisation by providing electronic and marine equipment. He said the authorities searched the men's homes and collected further evidence.

The arrests followed security operations in Melbourne and Sydney where a number of residences of Sri Lankan Tamils were searched. Both men were denied bail. It was only recently that the acknowledged Tiger chief in Australia, Thillai Jeyakumar, passed away. Had he been living, chances are that he too would have been arrested.

A different type of incident happened in Switzerland on May 1. A pro-LTTE goon squad attacked some Tamil youth (supposedly members of the People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam, or PLOTE) returning from a May Day rally in Zurich. Six men were hospitalised. Four men were arrested for alleged involvement in the incident and produced at the Criminal Investigative Court in Zurich. Among them was Chelliah Kulasekerasingham alias Kulam, head of the LTTE in Switzerland. Another was Selvarasa Vaikunthan, the man in charge of an LTTE-controlled Tamil youth organisation in Berne. Both men were denied bail.

The latest in this series of crackdowns took place on June 21 in the United Kingdom. Arunachalam Chrishanthakumar alias Shanthan and Goldan Lambert were arrested by the police in London and charged with supporting the LTTE. They were produced before the City of Westminster Magistrates Court on June 28.

The charges against Chrishanthakumar are assisting in the arrangement of the Hyde Park meeting on July 25, 2006; speaking at the event for the purposes of encouraging support for the Tamil Tigers; receiving 1,500 in January 2005, intending that it be used, or having reasonable cause to suspect that it may be used, for the purposes of terrorism; receiving manuals entitled "Underwater Warfare Systems", "Explosive Ordnance Disposal" and "Naval Weapons Systems", as well as possessing six trenching spades, 39 compasses and a piece of ballistic body armour, which may have been received for the purposes of terrorism; being a member of the LTTE between January 2005 and June 2007.

The charge against Lambert is assisting in the management of the Hyde Park event even while knowing it was for supporting a proscribed organisation.

Chrishanthakumar was denied bail and remanded to custody until July 5. Lambert was granted conditional bail but later remanded to custody as the surety was not paid. A hearing to decide whether the case should be committed to the Crown Court is scheduled for August 9.

Chrishanthakumar is the head of the LTTE's British branch. Lambert was allegedly responsible for Tamil youth activities. The bank accounts of both Chrishanthakumar and his wife have been frozen.

A pattern is visible in the series of arrests of LTTE activists. Many of them are the heads of the LTTE branches in their respective countries. Some are responsible for fund-raising, others are prominent youth activists.

Propagandists of the LTTE describe the persons against whom legal action is being taken as human rights activists and community leaders. They have also insinuated that Colombo has been successful in pressuring Western governments into cracking down on them. What has been glossed over is the fact that the activities of pro-Tiger elements in the West have often been provocative and blatantly defiant of Western laws governing terrorism. In spite of the LTTE being banned under anti-terrorism laws, the diasporic Tiger supporters have flagrantly flouted them. Apart from fund-raising, LTTE leaders have also displayed Tiger flags and portraits of LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabakaran at public meetings and rallies.

Allowing one proscribed organisation to defy legal provisions blatantly would have set a wrong precedent. While other banned organisations promptly went off the public "radar", Tiger activists continued to maintain a provocative high-profile presence. It was feared that a negative demonstration effect was in progress.

Another irritant was the LTTE going public with its nascent air wing Vaan Puligal. An air capability - however limited it may be - in the hands of an organisation like the LTTE was not welcomed by the West, which was also embarrassed by information that diasporic support by way of funds, expertise and training contributed greatly to the birth and growth of the air wing.

The LTTE's continuing intransigence towards negotiating a settlement to the ethnic crisis was also a source of annoyance. The international community, disgruntled with the LTTE over its stubborn attitude, is apparently sending a message.

The LTTE will now find it difficult to proceed with a business-as-usual attitude in the West. At present, only top-rung Tigers are being targeted. If the message does not sink in, the action could be intensified.

However, two questions arise out of these developments.

One is, will the lesson sink in and will the Tigers respond positively to the peace overtures inspired by the international community? The other is, will the Mahinda Rajapakse regime misread the situation and push the military offensive further?

Whatever the answers, there is no denying that the Western winter of discontent has begun to set in for overseas LTTE branches.

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