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Deporting British Tourist with a Budda Tattoo a case of acting without knowing the law

23 November 2017 12:00 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Coleman receives compensation, claims will never return to Lanka


Tourism is one of those sectors that immensely contributes to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the country. Immediately after the war, several plans were implemented to boost tourism in Sri Lanka and from then on wards, this island was marked on the world map as a tourism hot spot. Naomi Michelle Coleman was one of 144,168 tourists who visited Sri Lanka in 2014. Contrary to pleasant memories gathered while in Sri Lanka by other tourists, Naomi’s encounter was unpleasant and horrible. Naomi or any other tourist for that matter wouldn’t have expected a sporting a tattoo of The Buddha on the right upper arm would take a foreigner to the point of being deported from the country.   

The Supreme Court announced that Naomi wasn’t at fault and she was awarded compensation amounting to a figure between Rs. 800,000 – Rs 600,000 another Rs. 200,000 to cover costs

But three years later, the Supreme Court announced that Naomi wasn’t at fault and she was awarded compensation amounting to a figure between Rs. 800,000 – Rs 600,000 another Rs. 200,000 to cover costs. During the case, a magistrate issued a notice for her deportation without the consultation of the Subject Minister nor the Embassy. The judgment further specified that there had been a breach of fundamental rights and that a magistrate couldn’t take such a decision. “I don’t think I will ever return to Sri Lanka as there may be people who would want to harm me,” Naomi told the Daily Mirror.

The incident 

Naomi had just arrived in Sri Lanka after travelling from India. She was expecting her friend, who was arriving from the UK. She therefore had to collect her from the airport that afternoon. According to Naomi, this incident obviously wouldn’t have happened if she didn’t have to obtain the services of a taxi driver, who she identified as Kelum Chaminda, and a bystander, who had picked her up. Things had got a little unpleasant when he observed the tattoo and he wanted to take her to the Police instead to the airport. But she had managed to send her friend a text which she fortunately saw when she had arrived. They were then supposed to travel to Maldives after a week in Sri Lanka.   

According to her, the duo had taken her to Katunayake Police Station where the Acting OIC had confiscated her passport and produced her in court without specifying charges. She wasn’t afforded an opportunity to communicate nor inform the British High Commission about her arrest.   

She said she was introduced to an Attorney by a prison guard, but she had no opportunity to give instructions to the Attorney. However she was asked to pay Rs. 5000 as the fee.   

According to her, the prison guard who was in charge of her, while being behind bars at the court room, had made several lewd, obscene and disparaging remarks which were sexually inclined. When her case concluded, her attorney informed her that she would be deported, regardless of her entreaties. She was also told that she would be permitted to leave for Maldives and till then would be detained at a deportation centre in Nugegoda.  

“I will never return to Sri Lanka” -Naomi Coleman

Naomi Michelle Coleman has been working as a mental health support worker in Coventry for the past 16 years. She travels on a regular basis and has attended Buddhist retreats in India, Thailand and Nepal. She has also undertaken volunteer work with disadvantaged children in these countries. Her last visit in Sri Lanka, back in 2014, was her third in the island.   

I am happy with the outcome of the case and it proves that I wasn’t at fault. The whole situation was handled badly and I was very frightened

Speaking to the Daily Mirror, Naomi shared her experience and what she felt about the verdict.   

Q As a tourist, how do you feel when recalling the incident and what it turned out to be in the end?
I am happy with the outcome of the case and it proves that I wasn’t at fault. The whole situation was handled badly and I was very frightened as I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. I am glad that it has been acknowledged that the police officers are at fault and they have been asked to pay a fee.

No one spoke with me in English and I was relying on a taxi driver to communicate. The next thing I knew was that I was just taken to a court after waiting for hours and seeing my passport being taken away from me. I thank the rational thinking people in Sri Lanka for their great support and the lawyers JC Weliamuna, Vishwa, Thishya and Hafeel for offering to take my case without charging legal fees and fighting the case for over 3 years.   

I am unsure why the verdict took so long. Initially the judge presiding over the case was taken ill and then another judge was assigned. The case had been heard over several times during the past three and a half years.   

Q Have you had similar encounters in other countries as well?
I have never had an encounter like this in any other country. My tattoo is a symbol of peace and compassion and represents my travels to Buddhist countries and the lessons I have learned from Buddhist monks.   

Q Are you still being harassed?
I know of one person who is making an issue out of the verdict on social media, but I know in my heart that I wasn’t in the wrong and I follow a Buddhist path. These people don’t know me nor do they know what kind of person I am. 

I know Buddhist symbols should be above the waist and that’s what I have done

Q What is your message to fellow tourists and Sri Lankan authorities?
Sri Lanka is a beautiful country, however I won’t be able to return due to the small percentage of people that would still wish to harm me. I know Buddhist symbols should be above the waist and that’s what I have done as well, so I’m not disrespecting the Buddhist culture.   

Fellow tourists, just be mindful if you have a tattoo of The Buddha as there is a small percentage of extremists who could create a huge problem. Also if you take a picture in front of a Buddha statue that seems to create an issue in Sri Lanka, but not in other Buddhist countries. Other than that the beaches and Buddhist sites are must-visit places.  

“Police officers should follow the judgment and study the laws” - Ruwan Gunasekara

According to Police Media Spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara, once a Supreme Court judgment is given it becomes a binding law. “From there on wards Police officers have been asked to follow the judgment and study the laws accordingly. We can’t train Police officers every time a judgment is given. There are two parts to a law: Ratio decidendi – the point in a case where the judgment is given and Obiter dictum – a judge’s expression of opinion stated in courts. This isn’t the official decision. So usually the Ratio decidendi becomes the law and we have trained Police officers to abide by the law during these circumstances,” the police spokesman said.

“The dignity of a person is of utmost importance” - Dr.Prathiba Mahanamahewa

Dr. Prathiba Mahanamahewa, Human rights lawyer and former Commissioner of the Sri Lanka Human Rights Council, said that when the Police conduct investigations they should consider the dignity of a person. “When dealing with tourists we also have to think about the country’s image. Therefore before Police officers take action regarding an issue which has legal consequences, they should consult Senior officials and carry out their investigations accordingly.

We see Buddhist symbols everywhere and then in that case even wearing a Dharmachakra is an offence. People wear tattoos depending on their preferences and we can’t take it as an offence. She had no intention of degrading the religion and therefore she can’t be at fault. It’s only if someone is intentionally defaming a religion that some action should be taken against it. In this situation, the Embassy should have been informed and they should have been consulted, but everything was blown out of proportion. The Police should learn to treat people in a humane way,”said Mahanamahewa.

“Everybody is equal before the law” - Thishya Weragoda

Speaking to the  Attorney-at-Law Thishya Weragoda, one of the lawyers who appeared for Naomi, said that three years is relatively an improvement when compared to other verdicts which drag on for five years or more. “Regarding this incident a random person had created havoc and the Policemen seemed to have acted irresponsibly. What the Police should have done first was to disperse the crowd and made her explain what had gone wrong. They could have escorted her to a hotel, but instead they decided to deport her. I believe this is the first such case where a foreigner was involved,” said Weragoda.   

Regarding this incident a random person had created havoc and the Policemen seemed to have acted irresponsibly

Speaking further Weragoda said that everybody is equally treated by the law. “We followed Articles 11, 12 and 13 which addresses freedom of speech and equal treatment to all. The Police too has misrepresented facts in court which has resulted in the story being twisted in different places. It’s only if a person is convicted that a magistrate can deport him or her. I believe that the magistrate too should be more cautious and must understand the situation first. Also the Police too should train their subordinates to handle situations in a diplomatic manner without trying to earn extra bucks. It’s disrespectful to see such occurrences and in this case it involved a tourist. 

Therefore all Police officers have to be properly trained before a badge is pinned on them. We also have a Constitution which is 40 years old and that too should be revamped immediately,”said Weragoda.  

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