Two Tamils, who had fled the civil war in Sri Lanka about two decades ago and had become Canadians, were sentenced to 25 years each in prison last week by a New York court for attempting to buy heat-seeking missiles and military assault rifles for Sri Lanka's Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam rebels about five years ago. The two will also have five years of probation.
They were caught, along with several alleged Tiger backers, in a sting operation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Authorities told India Abroad that it was one of the biggest operations that led to the arrest of many Tiger sympathizers working against Colombo in what is known as Project Needle.
Thiruthanikan Thanigasalam and his brother-in-law Sahilal Sabaratnam were sentenced in the US District Court in New York. The authorities drove the men from Toronto to New York in August 2008 to meet fellow conspirators and then a man they believed was a Mafia arms dealer.
The man was an FBI agent, and he showed them a crate containing a Stinger missile and its firing tube. Thanigasalam then made a phone call to Sri Lanka, and ordered 10 heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles and launchers, 500 AK-47 assault rifles and other military equipment, as per court documents.
The missiles were to be used to bring down Sri Lankan military aircraft bombarding the Tamil territory which had almost become autonomous by then.
The men, who pleaded guilty last January, were prepared to pay $1 million for the arms. When the men pleaded guilty, the FBI said the missile plot was designed by Tamil Tigers intelligence chief Pottu Amman. He was killed in May 2009 when the Sri Lankan military ruthlessly crushed the rebels, ending the 26-year separatist war. The FBI said Amman was the right hand man of LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran, who was also killed in the army action.
According to the court papers, Thanigasalam, 41, ran a Toronto-based arms procurement operation and was in touch with top Tamil separatists. Sabaratnam, 30, who was an associate at TD Waterhouse in Toronto for several years, was the group's financial expert and helped arrange for the $1 million payment for the illicit weapons.
Earlier, a third Canadian, Satha Sarachandran, 30, who officials say was the group's administrator, was sentenced to 26 years in prison. Nadarasa Yogarasa, 54, a Sri Lankan living in the United States, got 14 years. The stiff sentence Thanigasalam and Sabaratnam have received follows the high profile guilty pleas entered about six months ago in a federal courthouse in Brooklyn by defendants Karunakaran Kandasamy, Pratheepan Thavaraja, Murugesu Vinayagamoorthy and Vijayshanthar Patpanathan. They admitted that they had conspired to provide material support to the LTTE, designated by Washington as a foreign terrorist organization.
According to District Attorney Benton J Campbell, at least 20 FBI offices across America and the RCMP worked together over a period of two years to trap the Tiger sympathizers.
Another Canadian, Ramanan Mylvaganam, is in custody in Brooklyn awaiting trial. Two more Canadians, Piratheepan Nadarajah and 'Waterloo' Suresh Sriskandarajah, are awaiting extradition to the United States, Canadian newspapers reported last week.