Tamils plead guilty in smuggling trial

January 26, 2009 3:16:25 PM PST
When customs agents questioned a carload of Sri Lankan immigrants entering the United States at the Canadian border in the summer of 2006, the men claimed they were headed to a bachelor party in Buffalo. In reality, there was no party or even a groom.

U.S. authorities say the men instead were part of a secret mission to help militants locked in a bloody civil war in their homeland by buying hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of surface-to-air missiles and smuggling them into their homeland. According to court papers, the men also wanted guns - but not just any guns.

"We need AK-47s, but only if you have Russian-made or American-made," prosecutors allege one defendant said during a meeting with an undercover agent posing as a crooked arms dealer. "Not the Chinese."

The videotaped sting has become central to an unusual case against four alleged agents of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or "Tamil Tigers" - a Sri Lankan rebel force the State Department calls a terrorist organization.

Two of the men, Nadarasa Yogarasa (NAH'-duh-rah-suh YOH'-guh-rah-suh) and Sathajhan Sarachandran (SAH'-thuh-jahn Sah-ruh-CHAN'-drahn), pleaded guilty on Monday to providing material support to terrorists just as jury selection was to begin in federal court in Brooklyn.

The case against the remaining defendants, Sahilal Sabaratnam (SAH'-hee-lahl Sah-bah-RAHT'-nahm) and Thiruthanikan Thanigasalam (THEE'-roo-thah-nee-kahn THAH'-nee-gah-suh-lahm), was expected to go forward.

Though several of the group's sympathizers have come under investigation in the United States, Canada, Europe and elsewhere, authorities say Sabaratnam and Thanigasalam would be the first to ever go to trial in a U.S. court on charges of supporting terrorists. Their lawyers have declined to discuss the case.

Press accounts in Canada had described Sarachandran as a well-liked Toronto university student who was part of a delegation that traveled to Sri Lanka to aid victims of the 2004 Asian tsunami. Canadian authorities have provided U.S. prosecutors computer files, DVDs, photos, video and other items seized from his home.

The Tamil Tigers have been fighting for an independent homeland since 1983. The three million mainly Hindu Tamils have long claimed persecution by the predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese majority in the nation of 19 million people.

The conflict has killed tens of thousands on the island, which lies off India's southern tip. A 2002 truce has collapsed because of renewed fighting that's left thousands dead.

Rebels, while waging conventional military operations against government troops, have also attacked civilian targets in government-held areas and carried out scores of suicide bombings, sometimes by women.

The Brooklyn arms case is part of a broader campaign by U.S. authorities to cut off support for the Tamil Tigers. Prosecutors have also brought charges against several men they allege tried to bribe U.S. officials to remove the group from the terrorism list.

Raids on offices and homes of organizers of phony Tamil charities unearthed evidence that the defendants raised millions of dollars for the rebels, authorities said.

The evidence includes photos of supporters meeting with the Tamil Tiger's notorious leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, in Sri Lanka. Defense attorneys have said the aide was strictly humanitarian.

The FBI began investigating the arms plot in 2006 after the defendants contacted a government informant, believing the man had contacts in the arms black market, court papers said. They told the informant they specifically needed Russian-made missiles that could bring down Kfirs - the type of fighter jet used by the Sri Lankan military - and set up a meeting in New York on Aug. 19, 2006.

After the men, who were living in Ontario, crossed the border, undercover agents posing arms dealers lured them to a warehouse on Long Island that was wired. During the meeting, the men said that on orders from Tamil Tiger leadership in Sri Lanka, they were seeking a "large quantity" of guns along with other weapons that could destroy planes, tanks and boats.

They agreed on an initial shipment of 10 surface-to-air missiles and 500 AK-47s. Training also would be thrown in, all for about $900,000.

"The money's not a problem," one defendant said, according to prosecutors.

At one point, a large wooden crate was brought out. Inside were an SA-18 missile, the missile's firing tube and trigger mechanism, and two AK-47 assault weapons.

Shortly after the men examined the weapons, they were arrested.

They each face up to 30 years in prison if convicted.


NEW YORK AND TRI-STATE AREA NEWS

USEFUL LINKS:
SEND TIP OR PHOTO  || REPORT TYPO ||  GET WIDGET

 EYEWITNESS TWITTER ||  FIND US ON FACEBOOK


Load Comments