Colombo, Nov 16 – Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court Wednesday awarded compensation to a British nurse who was illegally detained and deported for having a Buddha tattooed on her arm.
A three-judge bench held that Naomi Coleman was not only illegally arrested, but even the Negombo magistrate had issued an unlawful order to detain her and that she was subjected to “horrifying and scandalous treatment.”
The court censured the police as well as prison guards who had tried to extort money from Coleman and also attempted to sexually harass her. The conduct of the magistrate too was criticised.
Coleman had sued the police, prisons and immigration authorities and demanded 10 million rupees over her ordeal soon after she arrived in the island in April 2014.
The court ordered that the Sri Lankan state should pay her 700,000 rupees as compensation and her legal costs while two policemen who arrested her were ordered to pay her 100,000 out of their own pockets.
Coleman had cleared immigration and customs and was about to board a taxi when a driver raised issue over her tattoo and a civil defence force (home guard) member dragged her to the police.
Police said her tattoo was offensive and could cause unrest in the area. The court rejected statements recorded by the police three weeks after the incident to back up the claim of the acting officer in charge of the airport police and his sergeant that her tattoo caused unrest among the people.
The then police spokesman Ajith Rohana had attempted to justify her arrest saying she was taken in under the penal code for allegedly outraging the religious feelings with malicious intent.
However, when she was taken before the Negombo magistrate no such charge was brought against her. The magistrate simply ordered her deportation although he had no such power, according to the Supreme Court.
There was no action recommended against the magistrate for bringing the entire country to disrepute through his illegal order.
However, the Supreme Court asked that a copy of Wednesday’s judgement be sent to the Judicial Service Commission which is responsible for taking action against errant judges.
The Supreme Court in its 16-page judgement made it very clear that the magistrate had given an illegal order and precipitated the subsequent events.
Her arrest seriously embarrassed the Tourist Board and the government tried to control the damage by giving her a business class ticket to return home. But, even that too was done callously and caused more harm and was in poor taste.
Although she was given a business class ticket, she was treated like a prisoner with her passport held by an airline cabin crew and given to her only after the plane landed in London.
Coleman told AFP news agency in 2014 that she feared being raped during her one-night stay in Negombo prison near the airport, after a male prison guard made lewd gestures indicating he wanted to have sex with her.
A female guard at Negombo also demanded a bribe to avoid undergoing a “thorough” body search, she said.
Coleman was later transferred to a detention centre in Colombo before her deportation on April 24.
Coleman told the Supreme Court that she is a devout Buddhist and that the tattoo was a mark of respect.
Sri Lanka barred another British tourist from entering the island in March 2013 for showing “disrespect” to Buddhism by having a Buddha tattooed on his arm.
In August 2012, three French tourists were sentenced to six months in jail, which was suspended for five years, for kissing a Buddha statue in what authorities considered a sign of disrespect.
Sri Lanka prevented US rap star Akon from visiting in 2010 over a music video that featured scantily clad women dancing in front of a Buddha statue. (EconomyNext)