As a boy, Suresh Sriskandarajah escaped the civil war in northern Sri Lanka and fled to Canada, where he achieved notable academic success, earning scholarships and three university degrees.
But Sri Lanka eventually dragged him back: In 2006, after a joint probe by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, he was arrested in Toronto for helping procure “sophisticated military technology” and equipment for the Tamil Tigers rebels.
Monday, a U.S. federal judge in New York sentenced Sriskandarajah, also known as Waterloo Suresh, to 24 months in jail. He will be deported back to Canada once he has served his time.
The sentence is less than the 15 years prosecutors were seeking, but more than the “time served” the defence had asked for. He was given 10 months’ credit for the time spent in custody, meaning he will be released no later than December 2014.
The case was one of the last to come before the courts in relation to the once-vast Canadian support network that had supplied the Tamil rebels until they were defeated by government forces in May 2009.
One last Canadian, Piratheepan Nadarajah, is awaiting sentencing Jan. 31 after pleading guilty to attempting to buy $1-million of surface-to-air missiles and AK-47s for the rebels.
Three Toronto men are serving lengthy prison terms in the U.S., and a fourth has returned to Ontario after completing his sentence. Another served a six-month sentence for fundraising for the rebels in British Columbia.
Meanwhile, the primary Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) front organization in Canada, the World Tamil Movement, has been shut down by the government, which has seized its assets in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.
A former president of the Tamil Students Association at the University of Waterloo, Sriskandarajah, 33, pleaded guilty July 2 to conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization.
The LTTE “pioneered terrorist tactics and has killed numerous civilians in brutal terrorist attacks,” Loretta Lynch, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said after his guilty plea. “Claiming to fight for freedom, the LTTE instead created a climate of fear and bloodshed, systematically assassinating those who stood in the way of their terrorist goals.”
But his lawyer, Joshua Dratel, asked the judge to consider Sriskandarajah’s traumatic upbringing during the Sri Lankan conflict as well as his “stellar record of achievement.”
He quoted from letters of support written by New Democratic MPs Craig Scott, Rathika Sitsabaiesan and Peter Julian. In his letter, Mr. Scott described Sriskandarajah as “full of the desire to help others.”
Those who know Sriskandarajah, however, said his obliging nature may be what got him into trouble. He found it hard to say no to those who sought his help — including, apparently, Sri Lanka’s separatist Tamil rebels.
In interviews with the National Post before he was extradited to New York, Sriskandarajah would not discuss the charges against him, but described growing up at a time of brutal ethnic unrest.
When he was seven, he watched a Tamil rebel swallow a fatal dose of cyanide to avoid being capture by government troops. While walking to school, he was attacked by Sri Lankan soldiers who pummeled him with rifle butts. His injuries were so severe he spent three weeks in hospital.
To escape the war, his parents sold their fishing boats and jewellry, but they still did not have enough to bring the entire family to Canada so Sriskandarajah, then just eight, was left behind to care for his younger brother.
The brothers were eventually able to escape on their own, but a year after they rejoined their parents in Montreal in 1989, their father abandoned the family. Sriskandarajah’s mother was left to raise three children under the age of 10 on her own.
To help his mother make ends meet, Sriskandarajah picked strawberries and sold chocolates door-to-door. Driven and hard working, he excelled at school, particularly after he discovered computers. Xerox hired him at age 15. The next year, he won the $10,000 Canada Trust Horizon scholarship.
He studied electrical engineering at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and did a co-op placement at Microsoft. But he began to feel the pull of the homeland and in 2004 returned to Sri Lanka to help set up a technology training centre in the rebel capital, Kilinochchi.
While he was there, he volunteered at an orphanage on the island’s east coast but on Boxing Day 2004, the Indian Ocean tsunami killed all but 20 of the 170 children. Sriskandarajah helped bury their bodies.
According to U.S. prosecutors, in 2004 he also began working as a “facilitator” for the Tamil Tigers, under the direction of Pratheepan Thavarajah, a senior rebel procurement agent who was arrested in Indonesia in 2007.
Sriskandarajah was not involved in the purchase of weapons, but he helped research and buy aviation equipment, cell towers, submarine and warship design software and communications equipment, prosecutors alleged. He sent three students he had recruited to Sri Lanka “to conduct smuggling operations for the LTTE” and helped the rebels launder money in the U.S.
After his arrest seven years ago, Sriskandarajah fought his extradition to the Supreme Court of Canada. In the meantime, he earned a BA from the University of Waterloo and an master of business administration from Wilfrid Laurier University. He married and was studying law at the University of Ottawa when he was extradited to New York last December to stand trial.
While he was being held at the Metropolitan Detention Centre (MDC) in Brooklyn, he continued his academic studies, earning para legal and alternative dispute resolution certificates from Adams State University in Colorado and completing more than 40 Bible study courses.
He also wrote his law school exams, and tutored other inmates to write their high school equivalency and English as a second language tests.
The tutoring program was “completely moribund” until Sriskandarajah revived it, according to Mr. Dratel. “Throughout his time at MDC, Suresh has persevered in his commitment to improving himself and others,” the lawyer wrote.
Among his supporters was Mr. Scott, the MP for Toronto-Danforth. They met when Sriskandarajah approached him for help with a Sri Lankan human rights campaign. The two “became well-acquainted when Suresh volunteered with MP Scott’s campaign to serve in the House of Commons,” according to Mr. Dratel’s sentencing submission.
“MP Scott writes that because of his ‘impressive educational accomplishments,’ Suresh ‘truly stand[s] out as a role model’ for young Canadian Tamils, who are ‘amongst the most socially and educationally disadvantaged group’ in Canadian society,” it said.
In his own letter, Sriskandarajah wrote he hoped to start a family and commit himself to post-war reconciliation in Sri Lanka, adding he was “anxious to be a productive member of society.” (National Post)