A Human Rights Watch report alleging widespread extortion and intimidation in Toronto on behalf of Sri Lanka's separatist Tamil Tigers was assailed by the Canadian Tamil Congress yesterday as disparaging, methodologically flawed, short on specifics and flat-out wrong.
"If you have evidence, approach the police," speaker Dushy Gnanapragasam told a press conference at a Toronto hotel, echoing other panellists' contention that there is no track record of such complaints.
"The Human Rights report has become a threat to our human rights," Neethan Shan said, to a loud round of applause from the 80-plus congress supporters who attended.
Shanthela Easwarakumar said the report had caused "deep anguish," within Canada's roughly 300,000-strong Tamil community. Sri-gugan Sri-skanda-rajah, an influential leader among Tamil expatriates, called it "painful and hurtful."
But none of the six-member panel, which included Ottawa lawyer Lew Lederman, seemed able to explain why the widely respected New York-based human-rights organization might have been so far off base.
After the press conference broke up, one theory was voiced by audience member Satheesh Moorthy: Human Rights Watch had probably been fed bogus information by anti-separatist factions, he said.
The report's chief author, Jo Becker, stood by her conclusions yesterday, saying they were based on dozens of interviews that were "credible and consistent."
The absence of criminal prosecutions, Ms. Becker suggested, reflects a reluctance by Tamils to step forward because of fear of reprisals, together with a lacklustre stand by authorities.
The congress members, however, appeared to reject the possibility that there could be any truth at all in the damning report.
It found that Tamil families in Toronto -- like their counterparts in Britain -- are commonly extorted by fundraisers working for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
"This community doesn't have criminal elements," Mr. Gnanapragasam said.
As to the notion of the congress making its own inquiries, that would be "an impossible task," he said.
"Unless you interview all 300,000 [Tamils], you're not going to be able to counter these allegations."
Mr. Lederman, a long-time adviser to the congress, condemned what he termed the news media's "knee-jerk" response to the report's contents, which he termed "speculation."
Since 2002, a fragile ceasefire between the Tigers and Sri Lanka's Sinhalese government has granted the conflict-racked island a measure of peace.
But as the truce became shaky, the Tigers' fundraising efforts became increasingly aggressive, Human Rights Watch says.
"In Canada, families were typically pressed for between $2,500 and $5,000," Ms. Becker wrote, "while some businesses were asked for up to $100,000."
Speakers at yesterday's press conference also rejected suggestions that the Tamil Tigers are a terrorist group.
The U.S. State Department and Britain have labelled the Tigers as terrorists, citing their use of suicide bombs and their alleged responsibility for assassinating two heads of state, including Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, killed by a bomb in 1991.
The Canadian government has not gone that far, although it has banned Tiger members from entering Canada and keeps them on a list of proscribed terrorist groups whose assets must be frozen if found here.
Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day, however, has indicated that he might follow the U.S. and British lead and outlaw the organization.