Four members of the Sri Lankan Navy have been arrested for allegedly trying to smuggle more than 100 asylum seekers to Australia, the Age reported today.
Navy spokesman Commander Kosala Warnakulasuriya has confirmed that police are investigating the role of three sailors and one ”civilian attached to the navy” in organising the boat voyage of a group of asylum seekers who were arrested last week trying to leave Sri Lanka for Australia.
The three sailors are understood to be members of the navy’s signal branch. A van belonging to the suspects was reportedly seized, too, along with bank receipts for 1 million rupees ($8000).
The sailors have been taken into custody pending charges of assisting illegal emigration.
The 111 asylum seekers – 46 men, 20 women and 45 children – were arrested on board the fishing trawler Rwan Putha in seas off Galle, on Sri Lanka’s southern coast, last week.
In March, Fairfax Media exclusively reported that navy sailors and officers were widely believed to be complicit in, and profiting from, people-smuggling rings.
Prominent Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP Suresh Premachandran said: ”I believe some navy personnel are involved in this smuggling.”
Fellow TNA MP and leading Sri Lankan lawyer, M. A. Sumanthiran, said the navy’s involvement was common knowledge across the country.
”There is no doubt there is a level of naval complicity in the people smuggling,” he said.
”It is quite clear that some people are given the chance to go through, and we have even heard of stories where the navy has escorted boats out of Sri Lanka’s territorial waters.”
The allegations of naval complicity were raised directly with Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr when he visited Sri Lanka in December.