Sri Lanka police is inquiring into the actions of an officer overseeing the area where a group of tourists were brutally assaulted and sexually harassed, officials said, which may point to a ‘mafia’ with political connections.
Sri Lanka’s tourism minister John Amaratunga said police had already arrested and remanded till April 19 for identification, and they were trying to bring back at least two tourists who had left the country.
“We want them to come back and identify them,” Minister Amaratunga said. “We want to know whether they are the real culprits or scarecrows (pambayo) put forward by the real culprits.”
Sri Lanka Tourist Development Authority will bear all their expenses, he said.
The incident had taken place on April 07 night (early morning 08th) at the Water Creatures Restaurant, Surf Bar but no action had been taken until the 11th when police in Colombo received an emailed complaint and acted.
There were allegations that local police in Weligama had turned a blind eye, raising suspicions of links with the beneficial owner of the restaurant, who may have political connections.
Reporters told the minister that according to witnesses they spoke to, the police in the area had refused to entertain complaints.
Minister Amaratunga said he did not have direct information about a political involvement but it was unusual that interventions had to be made from Colombo to get police to act.
“I would have thought the local politician would be the first to demand action since it is their voters who will lose when tourist declines in their area,” Minister Amaratunga said.
Sri Lanka Tourist Hotels Association Chief Sanath Ukwatte said a ‘mafia’ had been operating in some areas of the South Coast with impunity in collusion with some ‘beach boys’ and this was the first time he had seen a tourism minister personally taking counteraction.
Superintended Gunesekera said police was inquiry into the conduct of local police, though no transfers had yet been made.
A witness in Colombo who had given a statement had been asked to go to Weligama to give another statement, to the same officers who are alleged not to have taken action earlier, reporters said.
Police refused to reveal the name of the owner of Water Creatures Restaurant, but said he was summoned by the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority which had begun an inquiry on the 18th.
SLTDA director General U Ratnayake said the restaurant was not registered or approved by the tourist authorities.
While anyone could operate a restaurant with a business registration from a local authority, the Surf Bar had also been serving alcohol without a license or paying fees, which was illegal.
A complaint had been made to excise authorities that an illegal bar was operating, Minister Amaratunga said. It was not clear how the bar was operating up to now without a license.
In 2011, Khuram Shaikh, a British touristn was murdered and his Russian girlfriend rape in Tangalle, also a newly expanded tourist area, by group led by Sampath Vidanapathirana, the local council chief.
Reports quoting eyewitnesses as saying the management took no action creating a culture of impunity.
“The night started fun until more and more local guys began to inappropriately touch the girls in our group and also other tourist girls at the bar,” Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror newspaper quoted Raffie Van Maren, a Dutch tourists, who said he had been assaulted, as saying.
“We complained about this to the guys working at the bar, but they laughed at us and continued to laugh every time a local guy harassed a girl.”
About 10 men had then rushed to the place and assaulted the tourists.
Report quoted another hotel owner as saying that the harassment of tourists had taken place before but most tourists who only stayed a few days had left without complaining.
Minister Amaratunga said he hoped these were isolated incidents, but any tourist who faced harassment should complain to the tourist police immediately.
“You have to complain before you leave the country. Then we can take action,” he said. “We apologize to the tourists involved in the incident.
There was no tourist police in Weligama/Mirissa at the moment but 20 more tourist hotspots had been identified to set up tourist police posts in addition to the 11 existing ones.
Police said an Israeli tourist who had a dispute with a group who was renting surf equipment had also been assaulted.