Complex Made Simple

Police harassment of foreign professionals not good for Sri Lanka’s image

Long-time UAE resident accuses police of arbitrary arrest and intimidation

Local officials allegedly misused immigration and visa laws to harass a respected academician Professor Meeder spent over 5 years in Dubai, and worked in top advisory and consulting roles As per the legal advisor of Prof Meeder, the issue is one of harassment with no legal basis for the arrest

Looks like a case of few bad apples destroying the image of a beautiful and business-frProfessor Robert Meederiendly country. Long-time Dubai-resident Professor Robert Meeder and his colleague have become victims of intimidation and harassment by the local police in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Australian national Prof Meeder and his colleague and flatmate Piotr Grzegorz Kopertowski (Polish national), who have been working in Sri Lanka for decades empowering local communities, are still recovering from the trauma when local police raided their residence and slapped lofty accusations including visa violations, trafficking, and harboring illegal immigrants, among others.

Professor Meeder spent more than five years in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and worked in advisory and consulting roles with top organizations especially in luxury marketing. While in Dubai, Professor Meeder was also a curator and a jury member of a Global Student Competition, which is part of the annual Arab Luxury World conference. 

The professor at the Arab Luxury World

The competition saw entries from luxury marketing MBA students from premier institutes such as Colombia Business School (United States), ESSEC Business School (France), London College of Fashion (United Kingdom), among others.

Prof. Meeder who has been associated with several prestigious educational institutes across the world is disheartened after the recent harassment in Sri Lanka, and said that such incidents would tarnish Sri Lanka’s image – the country he is passionate about and loves the culture and its people.

The incident also raises pertinent questions on the treatment of foreign professionals working in Sri Lanka and how incidents of arbitrary raids and harassment are not good for the image of the business- and tourist-friendly country.  

The residence of Prof Meeder, who taught at the premier design and creative arts institute SCAD in Hong Kong and worked in Dubai at several senior advisory positions with different organizations, was raided last month by a group of security officials in civilian clothes – a raid that lasted for more than six hours and resulted in the arrest of the professor’s flatmate Piotr, and this happened when the professor was not even in the city.

According to Prof Meeder’s complaint to the Human Rights Commission Sri Lanka, motorbike-riding police officers forced their entry into the professor’s residence in Colombo identifying themselves as members of the Special Task Force (STF) on the morning of February 15, 2021.

Professor Meeder during a workshop  Prof Meeder later learned from his house-staff that the raid was in relation to accusations of illegal stay/harboring of illegal immigrants. Fifteen heavily armed police officers including officers of the STF conducted the raid and continued for more than six hours despite explanations from Piotr, supported by documents, and intervention by neighbors, said the complaint.

In a blatant disregard for the rule of law and Sri Lanka’s legal framework for foreign professionals, the police officers did not show any search or arrest warrant and did not listen to any explanations from Piotr and ended up arresting Piotr who is a senior Graphics Designer and has worked with Prof Meeder on several projects in and outside Sri Lanka.

The island-country in South Asia facilitates foreign investment and services of foreign talent through Sri Lanka’s Board of Investment (BOI), and both Professor Meeder and Piotr Kopertowski are working with companies registered by BOI.

workshop in Shatila 

Former CEO of Sri Lanka’s Academy of Design Prof Meeder and Piotr Kopertowski are both associated now with BOI-registered export-oriented company Sapphirus Lanka (Pvt) Ltd. Despite their legal right to stay in Sri Lanka proven by documents from Sapphirus, the police kept Piotr under detention for several hours with no access to his lawyer and made him sign a confession letter in the local language Sinhala, which Piotr does not know or understand. Eventually, Piotr was released after spending three days in detention.

Per the legal advisor of Prof Meeder, the issue is of harassment and there is no legal basis of the arrest and the raid. Answering questions of Arab News en francais, Colombo-based Aritha Wickramasinghe – Solicitor, England, and Wales – said: “If any person’s visa is under process, they are entitled to remain in Sri Lanka until the decision for them to remain or leave is made by the relevant authorities. 

“Visa matters are within the jurisdiction of Sri Lanka’s Department of Immigration and Emigration. Immigration officers are the authorized officers to enquire and make decisions on an immigration complaint. The police and definitely not their special forces have authority to act on a visa matter, especially where the Department of Immigration has not made a complaint of overstay,” he said in a statement. 

Wickramasinghe believes what happened to Prof Meeder and Piotr was highly unusual and arbitrary. “Usually, the practice is that an immigration official would visit someone or make an inquiry on someone suspected of overstaying their visa. Generally, one immigration officer attends to such inquiries. Police officers do not usually attend to such matters – such arbitrary actions are very rare. There have been several cases of immigration officers acting arbitrarily to blacklist foreigners in a dispute with a Sri Lankan national. But again, it is immigration officers that intervene, not the police.”

Yet another workshop with Professor Meeder

The lawyer further stressed that what happened to Prof Meeder and Piotr was not arbitrary action by immigration officers. “This illegal raid on their home was not even conducted by immigration officers. This was clearly an act to intimidate and harass them.” 

Sri Lanka’s immigration framework is vague and leaves much room for arbitrary action by immigration officials, he said, adding that there’s no published procedure for immigration disputes, appeals, or a published process for even deportation. “The Government needs to issue clear rules and guidelines on how the system works in order to facilitate investment and knowledge capital in Sri Lanka,” said Wickramasinghe.

This incident is a blot on Sri Lanka’s bid to project a business-friendly image to foreign businesses and professionals. While foreign direct investment (FDI) in Sri Lanka is expected to reach $4 billion by 2022, the country’s central bank said that FDI declined 65% in the first eight months of 2019 by $501 million from $1.42 billion. 

Sri Lanka, which was recently ranked 99 in the ease of doing business among 190 economies, does not need negative publicity where a group of law enforcement officials acting on flimsy grounds use their power to harass and intimidate foreign professionals of good standing.