Ottawa (AFP) - A Canadian court on Thursday acquitted four Sri Lankan migrants charged with smuggling 74 of their compatriots into the country almost a decade ago.
"In October 2009, 76 young men from Sri Lanka arrived near Canadian waters on a migrant ship which had travelled for 40 to 45 days across the Pacific seeking refuge in Canada from the civil war which ravaged their homeland," Judge Arne Silverman of British Columbia's Supreme Court said.
Canadian police at the time suspected the four men had links to Tamil Tiger separatists, a group which is classified as a terrorist organization in Canada.
They said the freighter used to transport the migrants has been linked to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and had "possibly been used for arms shipments."
Traces of explosive residue were also found on the clothes of two of the accused, police said at the time.
Four of the migrants were charged with organizing the illegal entry of the group into Canada, and faced sentences of more than 50 years if the smuggling could be proven to have been carried out on behalf of a terrorist group.
The court ruled there was insufficient evidence that the four men had tried to make a profit from the operation, and found they were simply seeking asylum in Canada, like the others in the group.
Defense lawyers had stressed that everyone on the ship had helped each other out, citing a 2015 Supreme Court of Canada ruling that people providing humanitarian aid were exempt from smuggling laws.
"I have determined that these four accused were asylum seekers and that there is an air of reality to the defense of mutual aid," the judge said.