Before consummating the arms deal, buyers for a South Asian rebel group needed an expert.
So they turned to Thirunavukarasu Varatharasa, a citizen of Sri Lanka and a member of the Tamil Tigers, which is designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government. Prosecutors say he knew how to inspect the fully automatic weapons and surface-to-air missiles to determine whether they had flaws.
Varatharasa was arrested in Guam after inspecting the military hardware during a clandestine meeting with undercover American agents from Maryland.
In U.S. District Court in Baltimore yesterday, the 37-year-old father of two received a sentence of almost five years in federal prison on charges of conspiracy to provide support to a foreign terrorist organization and the attempted exportation of arms and munitions.
Varatharasa is one of six suspected South Asian arms dealers who have pleaded guilty to trying to ship restricted, high-tech weapons to rebels in Sri Lanka in 2006.
"I have to conclude that he played a very significant role in the attempt to smuggle very dangerous, sophisticated weapons to an organization that would use them to violent purposes," U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake said.
Varatharasa addressed the judge briefly yesterday, saying through an interpreter that he feared for his life if he had to return to Sri Lanka.
Demand for the weaponry is so high that federal agents were able to set up an elaborate sting centered in Baltimore in the summer of 2006. Immigration and customs officials say their undercover operations have routinely nabbed those seeking banned weapons in Maryland, a state with many defense contractors.
Investigators posed as representatives of a defense company and lured a Singapore arms broker to Baltimore. In July 2006, they put Haniffa Bin Osman up at an Inner Harbor hotel and shuttled him to a shooting range in Harford County so that he could test-fire machine guns he wanted to buy. Bin Osman, who also pleaded guilty, was the one who brought in Varatharasa to inspect the arms before the deal was completed in Guam, according to prosecutors.
Prosecutors say the arms dealers paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to export firearms and ammunition, surface-to-air missiles, night-vision goggles and other military weapons and gear. Most were to benefit the Tamil Tigers, a rebel group seeking a homeland for ethnic Tamils on Sri Lanka, an island in the Indian Ocean.
Sri Lanka's government officially gave notice yesterday that it is pulling out of a 2002 cease-fire agreement with the Tamil Tigers that has failed to quell the violence.
More than 70,000 people, many of them civilians, have been killed since the Tigers began fighting for an independent state for the ethnic Tamil minority in 1983, according to published reports. The Tamils claim that the Sinhalese majority discriminates against them. Despite the cease-fire, near-daily ambushes, assassinations and airstrikes have killed more than 5,000 people in the past two years.
In the Baltimore undercover operation, Varatharasa helped organize a plan to have at least part of the $900,000 worth of arms shipped to the Tamil Tigers by sea. Then, about 125 miles off the coast of Sri Lanka, the rebel group intended to send out its Sea Tigers naval force to pick up the weaponry, according to court papers.
"There is no telling how many lives would have been taken as a result of the $900,000 arms shipment," Assistant U.S. Attorney James G. Warwick said in federal court yesterday.
Defense attorney Archangelo M. Tuminelli argued that Varatharasa was not nearly as culpable as some of his co-defendants.
"He had no involvement in approaching the agents or the brokers or the people who actually arranged for the purchase of these weapons," Tuminelli said.
Recommended sentencing guidelines for Varatharasa called for a prison term of 57 to 71 months.
Prosecutors asked the judge to impose a sentence at the high end of the guidelines. Varatharasa's attorney asked for a sentence of less than 57 months.
Tuminelli urged the judge to be lenient in part, he said, because Varatharasa's father was beaten to death by Sri Lankan officials and his wife was maimed by an explosion inside a temple there.
Blake said she could not determine how accurate those accounts were and that even if they are true, "that cannot excuse or permit a response that does nothing but further the cycle of violence."