A Dutch court convicted five ethnic Tamils on Friday for raising illegal funds for the Sri Lankan rebel group Tamil Tigers, but in a ruling that ran counter to European and U.S. policy it refused to brand the Tigers a terrorist organization.
The defense attorney for two of the defendants said the decision by the Hague District Court "will have a huge impact" on a legal battle in the European Court of Justice to have the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, removed from the EU's list of terrorists.
The court sentenced the five naturalized Dutch citizens to prison terms ranging from two to six years. Receiving the longest sentence was a man identified only as Selliah, described as the global bookkeeper for all LTTE operations outside Sri Lanka.
But in a decision that could have a broad impact, the three-judge panel acquitted them of membership of an international terror organization.
The court said the Tigers' 26-year battle for an independent Tamil state, which cost an estimated 100,000 lives, was a "non-international armed conflict." That means that any atrocities committed by either side should be classified as war crimes or crimes against humanity, and not terror attacks.
The ruling represented a significant public relations victory for the Tigers, who were notorious for launching suicide attacks on civilian targets during the conflict, and were widely accused of recruiting child soldiers.
Dutch attorney Victor Koppe said the outcome will be critical in his case to overturn the 2006 decision by the EU to put the Tamil Tigers on the terror list.
"For the LTTE, this is a very good judgment," he told The Associated Press after the verdict. "It will be Exhibit A in the LTTE procedure in Luxembourg."
Despite saying that the Tigers could not be considered terrorists under Dutch law, the Hague District court still convicted the five of fundraising for an outlawed criminal organization, basing their verdict on the EU terror listing.
The court said fundraisers used threats to wrest money from the Tamil community in the Netherlands. That continued even after the Sri Lankan military crushed the Tigers and killed their leader Velupillai Prabhakaran in May 2009.
Koppe said he would appeal the convictions.
"Basically what they are saying is that the LTTE should not be on the EU banned (terror) list and at the same time convicting them for membership of the group," he said.
During the trial, Koppe called the Tamil Tigers "freedom fighters" and compared them to rebels who fought to topple Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi from power.
Nonetheless, the trial supported a long-held view by the Sri Lankan government that LTTE front organizations continued to operate among the 800,000 Tamils in the diaspora, many of them in the wealthy countries in Europe, Canada and Australia.
The extent of the operation was revealed in a USB stick containing the LTTE's 2010 financial plan seized from Selliah, whom the court described as "an unmissable link" in the LTTE. "Without Selliah's work many millions of euros would not have gone to an outlawed organization _ the LTTE," the judgment said.
The other men all worked for groups that judges called front organizations that raised money in the Netherlands.
The United Nations and other groups also have called for an investigation of alleged war crimes by the government and the military, particularly in the final months of the war when thousands of Tamil civilians were killed in the shelling as the army closed in on the LTTE leadership.
Prosecutors also have an opportunity to appeal the sentences, but did not immediately say if they would.
Judges also acquitted the men of extortion, but convicted them of using nonviolent threats to force Tamil exiles to donate to the Tigers.
Groups of fundraisers would repeatedly visit the homes of Tamils and threaten that they would not be allowed to visit their relatives in the predominantly Tamil areas of Sri Lanka if they did not pay up.
Several among the many Tamils who packed the court's public gallery rejected the verdicts as unjust and said they had voluntarily contributed money for humanitarian goals in Sri Lanka.
"I feel very sad," said the wife of one of the suspects. She declined to give her name, saying she feared reprisals by government forces on family members in Sri Lanka.
"My husband was a humanitarian worker. This is not a humanitarian verdict," she said.
Associated Press writer Arthur Max in Amsterdam contributed to this report.