A photo of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau posing with Veluppillai Thangavelu, the former vice-president of a group on Canada’s list of outlawed terrorist organizations, has underscored the pitfalls of selfie politics.
Thangavelu, who was a senior official in the World Tamil Movement when it was the target of an RCMP investigation, posted a photo on Facebook showing he and Trudeau in Toronto last month.
Thangavelu also appeared in the background of a photo of Trudeau posted that same day on the Twitter account of the prime minister’s principal secretary, Gerald Butts. “Good people,” the caption read.
The pictures were taken at the Malvern Family Resource Centre on March 31, days before the federal by-election in nearby Markham. Thangavelu said on Facebook he had a “brief conversation” with Trudeau at the event.
“The Prime Minister attends hundreds of events every year and meets with tens of thousands of people,” said Andrée-Lyne Hallé, a spokesperson for the prime minister. “At these events and out in public, people often ask to take a picture with the Prime Minister.”
Hallé did not specifically address how or why Trudeau had been photographed with the former official of the WTM, which an RCMP probe concluded was the main Canadian front organization for the Tamil Tigers guerrilla group.
“He just came to meet some people so I was also one of the invitees, so he just went around and spoke to people,” Thangavelu said of Trudeau when the National Post reached him by phone. “Why can’t a citizen of Canada meet the prime minister? It’s quite appropriate. Every citizen of this country has a right to meet the prime minister.”
He said he had asked Trudeau about the asylum seekers aboard MV Sun Sea, the cargo ship that smuggled almost 500 Sri Lankans to the British Columbia coast in 2010. He said the WTM was “history now,” having disbanded in 2008 following the RCMP investigation.
According to Public Safety Canada’s online listing of terrorist groups, the WTM used “intimidation and extortion” to raise money from the Tamil diaspora during the conflict between the Tigers and Sri Lankan government forces.
When police raided the WTM’s Toronto headquarters in 2006, they found vast amounts of paraphernalia bearing the rebel logo and “significant evidence of terrorist financing,” such as letters from the Tiger leadership asking for money for weapons.
“They are fighting, so we are supporting them,” Mariyathas Manuel told police, adding the leader of the Tamil Tigers had personally chosen him to run the WTM’s Toronto office, according to an RCMP affidavit.
The then-Conservative government placed the WTM on Canada’s list of terrorist groups in 2008. No charges were laid but the courts approved the seizure of the WTM’s assets. The Liberals renewed the designation of the WTM as a terrorist group on Nov. 20, 2016.
“Our government takes the fight against terrorism seriously and the Criminal Code listing regime is an important tool in that fight,” Hallé said. “If placed on the list, banks and financial institutions can freeze assets and Canadians are not allowed to knowingly deal with the financial affairs of the listed entity. There are now fifty-four listed terrorist entities including the World Tamil Movement.”
In 2014, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne was photographed with the former WTM spokesman, Nehru Gunaratnam. Canadian security agencies are attempting to deport the WTM’s former leader, Manickavasagam Suresh.