Deported Tamil man longs to return to Canada
Published Wednesday, September 8, 2010 8:39AM EDT
This undated photo shows Sanjeev Kuhendrarajah (left) and an unidentified man while they were aboard the Jaya Lestari 5. (Photo courtesy of Sanjeev Kuhendrarajah
A man who was kicked out of Canada for his criminal behaviour and former ties to a Tamil street gang says he is determined to get back to the country where he spent his formative years.
Since getting deported to Sri Lanka seven years ago, Sanjeev Kuhendrarajah says he has tried to build a new life.
The 28-year-old got married, started a business and tried to stay out of trouble.
But once again, Kuhendrarajah has ended up separated from his family and stuck in a country where he does not want to be.
In a series of recent telephone interviews from a location he does not want to make public, Kuhendrarajah discussed his past and expressed his desire to return to Canada.
While he has been lying low lately, Kuhendrarajah's name was everywhere last year when a migrant ship was intercepted at sea by the Indonesian navy last fall.
The Jaya Lestari 5 had sailing towards Australia with more than 200 Tamil passengers last October. Instead, it was taken to a port in Indonesia.
The migrants made headlines when they refused to get off the ship, citing concerns they would be stuck there.
They also had an English-speaking spokesperson with a North American accent who identified himself as "Alex."
But eventually it came out that Kuhendrarajah was the spokesperson and his criminal background was dragged up.
A criminal past and troublesome ties
After coming to Canada when he was five, Kuhendrarajah got into trouble as he got older. He had anger issues, started using drugs and ended up living in foster care.
When he was 18, Kuhendrarajah was charged after threatening another person with a handgun, while with friends who police say were members of a Tamil street gang.
His arrest came only two weeks after a woman gave birth to a daughter Kuhendrarajah fathered, whom he has not seen in 10 years.
"When I was 18 years old, I carried a loaded gun and did the most stupid thing I could ever have done in my life," says Kuhendrarajah, when discussing the incident during a recent telephone interview with CTV.ca.
Within a few months, Kuhendrarajah pleaded guilty to two criminal counts, which netted him a prison sentence and prompted his eventual deportation.
While acknowledging the threat was the worst of "many serious mistakes I'm still paying for," Kuhendrarajah also says the .22-calibre gun he carried "is one of the smallest pistols you'll ever find on the streets of Scarborough."
His case may have been further complicated by his ties to his uncle, Jothiravi Sittampalam, a former Ontario resident whom police allege was the leader of that same street gang, known as A.K. Kannan.
Sittampalam -- whose nickname was Kannan -- would later face his own legal problems, eventually being deported back to Sri Lanka himself in June 2010 after a long battle to stay in Canada.
But Kuhendrarajah says he wasn't very close with his uncle and that none of his friends "ever called him A.K. Kannan," or took orders from Sittampalam.
He denies that the group of men he hung out in the late 1990s with were a gang, though he admits they got in fights with other groups and spent time "getting drunk and smoking weed and getting high and causing mischief."
Sent back to Sri Lanka
The day his own deportation was finalized, Kuhendrarajah told an Immigration and Review Board member that he preferred being in Sri Lanka to being stuck in jail.
"I'd rather be in my country free like a bird than sit in prison, not being able to talk to my daughter when I want to, not being able to talk to my family when I want to," Kuhendrarajah said in a March 3, 2003 detention review, according to an IRB transcript.
Sure enough, Kuhendrarajah was sent back to Sri Lanka the following month. It was during a ceasefire period in the long-running civil war.
There Kuhendrarajah says he worked at various jobs, learned to speak another language and ended up getting married. He also received financial assistance from his family living abroad.
Three years after landing in Sri Lanka, Kuhendrarajah moved to India with his wife and their youngest daughter.
There he says he worked at a call centre, and eventually started a small business providing "transport and accommodation" -- or renting out his car and home -- to Tamil tourists.
After his wife gave birth to a second daughter in India, Kuhendrarajah said their home was ruined by a flood.
On the advice of family, he went back to Sri Lanka and planned to seek a Canadian travel visa for himself and his family.
But the war was in full swing then and Kuhendrarajah says war-time laws "gave the police the authority to arrest any Tamil under suspicion."
In April of 2009, Kuhendrarajah was thrown in jail and accused of being an LTTE pilot.
Rejecting the claim as nonsense, Kuhendrarajah says: "Where the hell would I ever get a pilot's licence?"
Kuhendrarajah says he was released from custody because there was no evidence to support the allegations against him. He sent documents to CTV.ca that say he was visited by the Red Cross while he was in jail and was released from custody a few days before the war ended in May 2009.
He says he later received threats against his life, which prompted him to flee Sri Lanka without his two children and his pregnant wife.
More than a year after fleeing Sri Lanka, Kuhendrarajah is still separated from his family.
From standoff to standstill
When he was Indonesia last fall, the months-long standoff on the Jaya Lestari 5 grew more desperate over time.
The migrants didn't get off the boat, some people fell ill and a man in his 20s died from illness.
His mother, Sathia Rajaratnam, of Vancouver, even flew over to try to talk him out of the standoff. But he stayed.
And then there were the problematic allegations.
In addition to his criminal record being dragged up, the Sri Lankan government accused him of being "involved in human smuggling for a long time."
Kuhendrarajah says the allegation is baseless, suggesting it is a technique the government uses to "discredit" people who oppose it.
"He's a liar, he's a terrorist, he's a Tiger, he's a gang member," he says, listing off examples of the titles that were linked to his name on the Web and in the press.
Kuhendrarajah says Indonesian authorities tried to arrest him "three times," which prompted his eventual exit from the situation. He was also concerned that he would not be able to get into Australia after his story was widely covered in the press.
With the help of locals, Kuhendrarajah says he managed to slip away and flee Indonesia.
Six months later, he remains outside of Sri Lanka and he does not plan to return. And he is sick of being in limbo.
"I'm just getting fed up with trying to keep a low profile," he says.
When the MV Sun Sea sailed to Canada this summer with nearly 500 Tamil migrants, Kuhendrarajah was offered a spot on board.
For various reasons, including the fact that he did not believe the decrepit ship would make it all the way, Kuhendrarajah did not ride on the Sun Sea.
In the long run, Kuhendrarajah says he intends to go back to Canada where his several dozen family members live, as well as the daughter he fathered when he lived in Canada.
"One way or another, I will find a way to get back into Canada."
Kuhendrarajah says he is hoping to find a lawyer who can help him with his situation.
He says he is eligible for a criminal pardon in Canada because he has not committed any crimes since his arrest 10 years ago and believes he has a "very legitimate case" for both asylum and protection.