Brit compensated by Sri Lankan court for wrongful arrest over tattoo

Ms Naomi Michelle Coleman was detained in prison in 2014 after touching down in Colombo, where police in the Buddhist-majority country took offence to the tattoo on her arm.
Ms Naomi Michelle Coleman was detained in prison in 2014 after touching down in Colombo, where police in the Buddhist-majority country took offence to the tattoo on her arm. PHOTO: AFP

COLOMBO (AFP) - Sri Lanka's top court Wednesday (Nov 15) awarded compensation to a British woman arrested for sporting a Buddha tattoo, saying the nurse was subjected to "horrifying and scandalous treatment" by local authorities.

Ms Naomi Michelle Coleman was detained in prison in 2014 after touching down in Colombo, where police in the Buddhist-majority country took offence to the tattoo on her arm.

Ms Coleman, a devout Buddhist, was deported three days later by a local magistrate in a scandal that embarrassed Sri Lanka's tourism board.

She later sued the island's police, prison and immigration authorities for US$66,000 (S$89,489) over the ordeal, claiming she was sexually harassed and extorted in prison.

In a 16-page judgement the Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld her case, declaring Ms Coleman's arrest illegal and charges against her as baseless.

The three-judge bench said Ms Coleman, who was not present at the court, was subjected to "horrifying and scandalous treatment" and ordered the state pay her 700,000 rupees (S$6,173).

The two police officers found to have acted inappropriately were also instructed to pay Ms Coleman 100,000 rupees.

The mental health nurse told AFP in 2014 that she feared being raped during her incarceration at Negombo prison, after a male guard made lewd gestures at her.

A female guard also demanded Ms Coleman pay a bribe or face a "thorough" body search, she said.

Ms Coleman - who insisted throughout that the tattoo was a mark of respect for her faith - was later transferred to a detention centre before being deported.

Sri Lanka's Tourism Promotion Bureau paid for her return ticket to the United Kingdom, and expressed regret over the widely-publicised incident.

Ms Coleman is not the first tourist to fall foul of sensitivities over tattoos deemed offensive in Sri Lanka.

Another British tourist was also barred from entering the island in 2013 after allegedly showing disrespect over a Buddha tattoo on his arm.

In August 2012, three French tourists were sentenced to six months in jail for kissing a Buddha statue on the devout island. The sentence was later suspended.

Sri Lanka denied US rapper Akon permission to visit in 2010 after his music video showing scantily-clad women dancing in front of a Buddha statue was deemed offensive.