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Sri Lanka boat people leader a known trafficker: Colombo

November 6, 2009 (AFP) - The leader of a boat of Sri Lankan asylum seekers held in Indonesia is a known people smuggler previously deported from Canada, the government said Friday, a charge he has strongly denied.

Alex, who emerged as the spokesman for the 255 Sri Lankans whose boat was detained last month en route to Australia, is Kulaendrarajah Sanjeev, a 28-year-old who worked out of a base in India, the foreign ministry said in a statement.

The man, who led an abortive hunger strike demanding that those on board be granted refugee status, was expelled from Canada in 2003, the statement said.

"Alex had been involved in human smuggling for a long time and it is believed that his office is based in India," the statement said.

"His brother who is now in Canada is also involved in human smuggling" and is being sought by Canadian police, the statement added.

The ministry did not give further details.

Alex emotionally denied the allegations when contacted by AFP by telephone in Indonesia, saying they were a ruse to discredit the boat people and distract from widespread rights abuses in Sri Lanka.

He neither confirmed nor denied the identity given by the Sri Lankan government, saying he could not reveal further information before his asylum claim was heard by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

"I do appreciate the media’s efforts to try and expose the truth but I think the media and everyone involved should focus on the truth that is in Sri Lanka at the moment," Alex said.

"Instead of focusing on one person and trying to ... expose that one person on the boat and say that he’s a bogus refugee and make accusations that he’s a people smuggler," he added.

"This is the only way that they can try to actually make everybody (on the boat) look bogus."

He said accusations that he was a people smuggler were "definitely false. A people smuggler would never take the risk and come on a boat.

"Just imagine if a people smuggler came on this boat and arrived in Australia. What do you think all the other people on this boat would do to that people smuggler?"

A convicted Indonesian people smuggler, Abraham Lauhenaspessy, known as "Captain Bram", was found on the boat last month. Media reports said he forced the boat to turn around after failing to be picked up by another boat and returned to Indonesia.

An ethnic Tamil, Alex has told the media the group of asylum seekers fears government repression in the wake of the defeat of Tamil Tiger rebels earlier this year, although he denies the migrants were rebel separatists.

Rights groups have condemned what they say are widespread abuses in the wake of the long-running war’s end, including the detention of around 250,000 Tamils in government-run camps.

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