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Return of liberal ideals

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Tourism is often cited as a golden goose industry for Sri Lanka. Since the end of the war in 2009 the industry has boomed, delivering double digit growth and earned $3 billion at the end of last year. 

However, there have been dark blips in this journey, Sri Lanka’s overall reputation as a great hospitality destination has also dimmed because of several incidents of intolerance and violence. Perhaps the worst of these was the death of a humanitarian worker and the rape of his girlfriend on Boxing Day, but there have been a few others.  

Naomi Coleman, a British nurse, filed a lawsuit in the Supreme Court in Colombo seeking Rs.10 million in compensation from police, immigration and prison authorities after she was unlawfully arrested and deported in 2014.

This week the apex court ordered that the Sri Lankan state should pay her Rs. 700,000 as compensation and her legal costs while the two policemen who arrested her were ordered each to pay her Rs. 50,000 out of their own pockets.

The 40-year-old nurse from Coventry was arrested after a taxi driver spotted the tattoo featuring a Buddha sitting on top of a lotus flower on her right arm and informed the authorities.

Coleman had to spend a night in prison in Negombo, near the airport, after appearing in court before she was deported to the UK three days later. She was later transferred to a detention center in Colombo before her deportation on 24 April 2014.

At the time Coleman said she feared being raped during her one-night stay in the prison, after a male prison guard made lewd gestures indicating he wanted to have sex with her.

The three-judge bench stated that 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.”

It is to the credit of the Government that redress in this instance has been provided and the Supreme Court has also been hailed for its decision. Her arrest prompted Sri Lanka’s Tourism Development Authority to express regret for the incident. The Authority paid for her flight back home in business class and also offered to fly her back for a free holiday in future but Coleman has publicly declared that she would never return to Sri Lanka. 

Buddhist fundamentalism was sweeping through Sri Lanka in 2014 when these incidents occurred and one would hope optimistically that it has ebbed since then. But SLTDA and other officials need to do more to ensure that such instances to not happen again. Not only are these instances public relations disasters, they are also warnings for female travelers to stay away from Sri Lanka. 

In a country where even local women are wary of public transport and individual travel in the night Sri Lanka’s tourism and law enforcement officials have to take extra steps to educate police, the judiciary and the public to refrain from taking narrow minded and bigoted decisions that endanger the lives of other, tourists included.  

Sri Lanka’s Constitution safeguards the fundamental rights of the individual, which protects against arbitrary arrest and detention. Protection also means protection against harassment and other issues that female tourists are repeatedly subjected to. Unless tourism can address these ills, Sri Lanka is likely to see its image blighted repeatedly. 

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