Special Report

Banker, Tiger, sold ier; spy

A Tamil immigrant's arrest masks a tale of international intrigue

PAUL KAIHLA August 5 1996
Special Report

Banker, Tiger, sold ier; spy

A Tamil immigrant's arrest masks a tale of international intrigue

PAUL KAIHLA August 5 1996

Banker, Tiger, sold ier; spy

Special Report

A Tamil immigrant's arrest masks a tale of international intrigue

PAUL KAIHLA

Colleagues at the Bank of Nova Scotia found the hardworking teller, with his cosmopolitan manners and exotic accent, a welcome distraction in the beige, workaday world of a suburban bank. Vic Vignarajah’s smooth talk,

impeccable dress and cheerful outlook made him a favorite with both customers and staff at the Toronto-area branch, winning him an award for best employee. But a radically different image of the 37-year-old Tamil immigrant began to emerge on May 9 when roughly 20 RCMP detectives and heavily armed officers in SWAT fatigues arrested Vignarajah at gunpoint in the bank’s parking lot shortly before lunch. In allegations contained in a search warrant application filed that day— and yet to be proven in court—investigators say that Kumaravelu Vignarajah (his real name) was an area commander of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the guerrilla army that has waged a war of independence against the government of Sri Lanka for 13 years and, in 1991, established a reputation as one of the world’s most feared terrorist organizations by assassinating former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.

What is more, according to the court records, Vignarajah had not only been a Tiger allegedly implicated in bloody violence, but also a Sri Lankan military intelligence informant—playing both sides in the country’s dirty civil war (page 30). According to the RCMP documents, Vignarajah, by “infiltrating” Canada’s national police force as a part-time translator of top-secret wiretaps in 1994, “did wilfully attempt to obstruct, pervert or defeat the course of justice by: being a member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and or a member of the Sri Lankan military intelligence.” That reve-

lation is stunning in light of two facts. For one thing, Vignarajah’s affiliation with the Tigers was common knowledge before he came to Canada in 1989. For another, he was accepted as a landed immigrant after making a refugee claim using his real name— and passing a security check by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

Vignarajah, who told Maclean’s last week that he does not know why he is in jail and that he is innocent of any wrongdoing, now faces eight charges related to infiltrating the RCMP. He has also been charged with making a false statement on his refugee claim—by denying that he has ever committed a crime or offence. And as he awaits trial, his case raises troubling questions about the twisted, often byzantine world of Canada’s security agencies, as well as the extent to which the politics of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict have spilled over into Canada.

In fact, during a three-week investigation into the murky Vignarajah affair, Maclean’s has learned that:

• Vignarajah’s career as a double agent continued in Canada. A senior Sri Lankan intelligence officer says that he was actively passing information to the Sri Lankan authorities while in the RCMP’s employ. Other sources say that he was also supplying RCMP secrets to the LTTE—classified as “a terrorist organization” by the Canadian government, and linked by European Union officials to the Mafia and drug trafficking.

• CSIS was fully aware of Vignarajah’s Tiger past, according to federal sources. But, wanting to capitalize on it for its own ends, they did not inform the RCMP.

• Vignarajah’s connection to Sri Lankan intelligence could hardly have come as a surprise to the Mounties—he applied for his translator’s job on the strength of two letters of recommenda-

Most of Canada’s 150,000 Tamils live in the Toronto area, and that is where Vignarajah settled when he arrived in the country as a

tion from the military intelligence directorate in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital.

• Vignarajah is not alone: more than 30 leading figures from various Tamil rebel groups, as well as up to 10,000 former guerrillas, are currently residing in Canada, most of them having gained refugee status by concealing their past. Some of them, police sources say, are actively involved in fund-raising efforts for the Tamil independence struggle—efforts that often involve extortion. Some of the funds are directed towards arms purchases. “If an independent Tamil nation is ever formed,” one federal official drily noted, “half of those people will end up in the cabinet.”

refugee claimant seven years ago. Vignarajah was raised in the northern Sri Lankan town of Atchuvely, the son of a wealthy coconut plantation owner. “I’m from a very rich family,” he said in an interview last week. After completing the equivalent of high school in 1978, he studied banking and got “a senior job” in the nearby city of Jaffna at the Bank of Ceylon in 1982. By that time, ethnic tensions between the country’s ruling Sinhalese population and Tamil minority had repeatedly erupted in violence—largely at the

expense of the Tamils. But Tamil guerrilla activity escalated dramatically after 1983, when Sinhalese thugs went on a rampage that left more than 3,000 Tamils dead. In the shadow of that escalating violence, Vignarajah began his murky double life as both a Tiger and an informant for the Sri Lankan authorities. Asked last week about his LTTE membership, Vignarajah referred a Maclean’s reporter to his lawyer, adding, “I can’t answer those kinds of questions right now.”

It is unclear whether the banker’s initial loyalty was to the militants or Sri Lankan military intelligence. But he allegedly began his career with the LTTE as a collaborator. According to the Canadian court records, Vignarajah, whose LTTE code name was “Nishantan,” informed the Tigers about the finances of bank clients from whom the guerrillas then extorted funds. He rose rapidly: by 1986, Nishantan had become a close aide to Tiger co-leader Gopalaswamy Mahendrarajah—alias “Mahathaya.”

The following year, the Tigers launched a bloody campaign against Indian peacekeepers who had been sent to the Jaffna peninsula by Gandhi to guarantee a fragile peace accord with the Sri Lankan government. That November, India Today, a New Delhi-based mass-market newsmagazine, published a shocking cover photo showing armed Tigers standing over the bodies of slaughtered Indian peacekeepers. According to former Tigers interviewed by Maclean’s and a forensic photo analysis cited in the Toronto court records, Vignarajah was one of the armed men in the cover photo. (In their court submission, the RCMP say that under questioning Vignarajah “denied killing anyone,” although he also “said if he did kill any-

one he was following orders.”)

Little did the Tigers know that Mahathaya’s trusted confidant was, in fact, co-operating with Sri Lankan military intelligence the whole time. The high-ranking intelligence official who controlled Nishantan told Maclean’s that Vignarajah was recruited as a spy in 1982. Sri Lanka’s intelligence service came to regard him as a top agent after he confirmed information obtained from a captured Tiger guerrilla that led to a raid on a major arms cache in Vignarajah’s home town on Jan. 9, 1985. The raid, in which the Tigers’ deputy leader was killed, was a staggering blow to the LTTE—and remains the largest weapons seizure by the army in the civil war. But in 1989, after quitting his job at the bank the year before, Vignarajah told his controller that the LTTE’s ruthless leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, suspected him of being a spy—and asked for help to flee the country. The intelligence

officer wrote him the two letters of recommendation. Eighteen months after Nishantan’s picture had appeared on the cover of India Today, he travelled to Canada and applied for refugee status using his real name. According to an immigration official familiar with his file, Vignarajah claimed he was fleeing persecution not only from the Tigers, but also the Sri Lankan authorities. Said the official: “It was your standard Tamil story: ‘I’m being squeezed by the Tigers as well as from the government side.’ ” Vignarajah would only say, “I came to this country because I like the peaceful life.”

The Immigration and Refugee Board accepted Vignarajah as a refugee on Dec. 22,1989. Before acquiring landed immigrant status, he passed a standard, secret security check conducted by

CSIS and known as a “Stage B.”

He received landed immigrant status on Aug. 6, 1991; by 1994, Nish an tan was a Canadian citizen. After settling in Toronto, Vignarajah used his banking experience in Jaffna to get his senior teller’s job in Canada. And in 1994, he used the two letters of recommendation from the Sri Lankan intelligence officer to get a job with the RCMR According to the Canadian court records, Vignarajah worked in the “wire room” of the RCMP’s Toronto headquarters, translating confidential wiretaps for an investigation into local Tamil alien smugglers and document forgers, some of whom had ties to the Tigers. “Vignarajah was being groomed for future translation and wiretap projects by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and would have been recommended to other police agencies,” the RCMP submission says.

That statement is all the more incredible given the following twist: according to a high-ranking federal official in a different branch of the government, CSIS had identified Vignarajah as a senior Tiger before he went to work for the RCMP—and never told the Mounties. “My information is that they

knew he was working for the RCMP translating wiretaps and they wanted him to go back in and become an activist with local Tiger front groups,” said the official. CSIS agent Gerald Baker, who specializes in Tamil investigations, had no comment. “I’m not able to talk about service investigations,” said Baker.

A few months after the wiretap project, sources in the Tamil community tipped an embarrassed RCMP off to Vignarajah’s Tiger past. When confronted, the court papers say, Vignarajah offered to provide the force with intelligence on the LTTE and immigration frauds. Instead, he was arrested. In a raid on Vignarajah’s home that day, investigators found the following items: the 1986 edition of the Shooter’s Bible, a weapons manual favored by outlaw militia groups; transcripts and tapes from the RCMP Tamil investigation; electronic equipment allegedly stolen from the RCMP wire room; and a résumé stating that he was employed by “the RCMP Central Government Secret Intelligence Service.”

In fact, Vignarajah was an agent for an intelligence service at the time—but it had nothing to do with the RCMP. Vignarajah’s former Sri Lankan controller says that the banker re-established contact with military intelligence after settling in Toronto, and

Sri Lanka's agony

The bombing was clearly timed to maximize the death toll. On July 24, during a midweek rush hour, a huge explosion ripped open two cars of a commuter train as it stopped at a crowded station. The twisted wreckage from the train, which had been carrying workers home from the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, was strewn with charred bodies, dismembered limbs and clothing. The blast killed 78 people and injured 450—the latest outrage in a cycle of atrocities that have ravaged Sri Lanka during 13 years of civil war. At the same time, a fierce battle raging around an army base at Mullaittivu on the country’s north coast claimed an esti-

mated 1,600 casualties. Said John Thompson of Toronto’s Mackenzie Institute, a thinktank that specializes in conflict analysis: “This is the most intense fighting in the world right now. It’s equal to the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War.”

Sri Lanka’s population of 18 million people is roughly onesixth Tamil, and for centuries they lived as peaceful neighbors of the island’s Sinhalese. But the colonization of Ceylon brought their kingdoms under single rule. After independence in 1948, the Sinhalese majority began flexing its muscle—at times resulting in mob violence against Tamils. Guerrilla activity by Tamil resistance groups such as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, founded in 1972, escalated rapidly after 1983, when Sinhalese extremists went on a rampage in retaliation for a Tiger ambush that killed 13 Sinhalese soldiers. More than 3,000 Tamils died. By 1987, the avenging Tigers had gained control of most of the Jaffna peninsula and other parts of northern Sri Lanka.

They have also killed more than 3,500 civilians in the course of the civil war, according to the Sri Lankan government. The most frightening attacks are carried out by Black Tigers, a cult-like corps of LTTE suicide bombers that assassinated thenSri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993. In 1991, a female Black Tiger killed then-lndian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, herself and 16

others by detonating plastic explosives she wore in a body pack.

Amnesty International has accused the Tigers of “gross human rights abuses,” including butchering both Tamil and Sinhalese civilians. But it also condemns the Sri Lankan government. The watchdog agency’s 1996 annual report cites cases of rape, torture and summary executions by the army and police, as well as 30,000 unexplained disappearances since 1988. With an estimated 50,000 dead so far, Sri Lanka’s dirty civil war rages on.

“gave valuable information on LTTE operations in Canada, as well as on LTTE’s international operations” until the end of last year. At the same time, at least two Tamil police informants in Toronto—one of whom identified Vignarajah to the RCMP as a Tiger in the first place—say that Vignarajah was passing Mountie secrets to senior LTTE officials (an allegation he denies). “There was some kind of communication going on between Vigna and the Tigers,” said one of the informants. ‘Why do you think he had the tapes and the transcripts?”

Vignarajah is only one of dozens of alleged high-ranking Tamil terrorists who have entered Canada under false pretences. Ac-

cording to interviews with government officials and Tamil sources in both Sri Lanka and Canada, including former senior Tigers and supporters of the terrorist organization, more than 30 leading figures from various Tamil rebel groups are currently residing in Canada. In addition, says one former highranking Tamil militant now in Toronto, there are between 8,000 and 10,000 of his countrymen in Canada who have received

military training in guerrilla boot camps—and fought in the civil war. Some Tamils note that, given the history of persecution they have suffered, that fact should not be surprising. And, they add, Canadians should not be dismayed that many attempt to hide their past when they make refugee claims. “They were involved in armed activities and they all lied because of the system,” said the ex-militant “If you make up stories, then you’re OK But if you try to be honest to the government and tell the truth, they’ll say, We believe you did a crime against humanity.’ ”

Canadian government, law enforcement and intelligence officials are quite aware of the extent of the Tamil rebel network in Canada, and claim that those who are still active are using the country as a base for intelligence-gathering and raising money for

More than 30 top Tamil militants are in Canada

arms shipments. Said one law enforcement official who insisted on anonymity: “I’m amazed that there are so many people who have been trained by a group that our government says is a terrorist organization, and we’re letting them in. I just can’t believe how stupid we are.”

Their presence also helps explain why Canada’s Tamil community is rife with fear, paranoia and extortion. “Most of the Tamils here are hardworking people who pay taxes and hate the Tigers,” says one Tamil immigrant who recently learned that a relative had been executed in a Tiger-rUn prison camp in northern Sri Lanka. “The Tigers are always threatening them and asking for money for the war back home.” Added a Tamil community activist who

requested anonymity for fear of reprisals: “I love this country, but I have to tell you that new Tiger people are arriving every day. Canada should kick them all out. Why are they bringing the civil war here? Don’t bring the old sickness to the new society.” Vignarajah is not the only ex-Tiger to become entangled in that dilemma. Thalayasingam Sivakumar, a former major in the LTTE, has been involved in a seven-

year battle with Canadian immigration authorities. According to affidavits filed last year in the Federal Court of Canada, he was an informant for CSIS from 1989 until last year. Sivakumar, 39, is the most senior Tiger known to have taken up residence in Canada. He joined the rebel organization as a student organizer at the age of 21 in 1978, and was kicked out by leader Prabhakaran 10 years later. In between, he oversaw the mass production of LITE antitank mines, won appointment as the Tigers’ chief of intelligence and acted as the military commander in charge of the defence of Jaffna in 1987.

He made a refugee claim in Canada on June 16, 1989. In fact, Sivakumar, and a former LTTE captain who was also interviewed by Maclean’s, are the only Tamil militants who have disclosed

their LTTE affiliation to the refugee board. The board rejected both of their claims on the grounds that their membership in the Tigers made them accomplices in crimes against humanity—a ruling that both are appealing. In an interview with Maclean’s, Sivakumar, who works in Toronto as a supervisor for the tax preparation firm H and R Block, vehemently denied taking part in terrorist acts. But according to Sri Lankan intelligence files, the former major was allegedly involved in

the killing of 18 policemen, political rivals and other civilians in nine separate attacks between January, 1981, and April, 1983.

“This is all bullshit,” said Sivakumar, reacting with anger when a Maclean’s reporter listed the allegations. “Don’t believe it. This is all lies from the most fascist government in the world.”

Still, the Canadian government took a keen interest in Sivakumar after his arrival in Toronto. In court affidavits, Sivakumar said that CSIS recruited him as an informant in exchange for monthly payments of $200 and help in obtaining landed immigrant papers (his status is still in limbo). In a filed response, the agency denies making such a deal, but does acknowledge getting intelligence from Sivakumar. In his affidavit, the former Tiger major says that CSIS investigator Dann Martel asked him about LTTE fund-raising in Canada, arms purchases and “covert LTTE offices in Canada and their activities.” The CSIS agent also showed Sivakumar pic-

tures of suspected Tigers living in Canada, as well as lists of names, and asked for information about the individuals. “CSIS knows a lot of things,” Sivakumar says. “They are very powerful people.”

There is a lot to know. Maclean’s has learned that among the senior Tamil rebels in Canada are a former LTTE intelligence squad chief; an ex-Tiger zone commander in Jaffna who now delivers pizzas in Toronto; a senior leader from a faction called the Eelam Revolutionary Organization; and an ex-priest who was arrested in 1982 in Sri Lanka for an attack on a police station and acting as an accomplice in a major bank robbery led by Prabhakaran. “Every group has senior people here,” said a former Tiger captain, who left the LTTE in 1990 and came to Canada the following year as a refugee.

While many of the ex-militants are keeping a low profile, those who are still active are primarily involved in raising funds for the Tigers through donation drives, concerts—and extortion. Typically, Tamils who are targeted are asked to pay six per cent of their gross income to Tiger bag-

men. Back home, if a Tamil wants to leave an LTTE-controlled area and travel to Canada to make a refugee claim—dozens do so each week—the Tigers will not grant them passage until a relative in Canada begins making the payments. Estimates vary, but Canada is clearly fertile ground. One high-level source says the Tigers raise up to $7 million a year in the country.

That money, the source adds, is used to buy arms. Often, the weapons are purchased in South Africa and then shipped

to India, from where they are smuggled aboard LTTE-owned ships to northern Sri Lanka. In a 1994 transaction, the source says, $6.8 million was transferred from the bank account of an LTTE front organization in Canada to a bank in western Europe, and then to Ukraine. Those funds were then used to buy explosives that were smuggled to Sri Lanka on board an LTTE-owned ship registered in Honduras to a Malta-based front company. The source adds that the explosives have been used in five terrorist attacks that have killed more than 200 people, including Sri Lankan presidential candidate Gamini Dissanayake.

That climate of terror reaches deep into Canada’s Tamil community. And Vignarajah, for one, insists that he fears for his life. “Al over the place there is big danger for me,” the banker lamented. Given the double agent’s current incarceration, and the presence of Tiger militants in both his homeland and adopted land, that is hardly surprising.

WARUNA KARUNATILAKE