The Customs Department is examining the practices of their foreign counterparts and consulting on the possibility of equipping their officers at Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) with non-lethal means of defence–such as batons and handcuffs–to restrain unruly persons, Director General P S M Charles said. The necessity to better train and equip Customs officers was highlighted [...]


Fracas in BIA over Bella highlights ill-equipped Customs officers


The Customs Department is examining the practices of their foreign counterparts and consulting on the possibility of equipping their officers at Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) with non-lethal means of defence–such as batons and handcuffs–to restrain unruly persons, Director General P S M Charles said.

The Kuwaiti couple's lawyer shows the BIA incident that appeared on social media

The necessity to better train and equip Customs officers was highlighted after the recent fracas at BIA involving a Kuwaiti couple and their five-year-old pet dog, Bella. The 30-year-old husband and his 32-year-old wife now face charges of disorderly conduct and obstructing the work of State employees after allegedly setting off an altercation that resulted in blows being exchanged with Customs staff at BIA. They are presently enlarged on bail.

Airport and Aviation Services (Ltd) Security did not respond nor assist when called upon, Customs officers who witnessed the incident said. “They heard, but didn’t pay attention,” one claimed.

“We did not expect to be attacked by passengers,” another said. “This is a rare incident.” They expressed strong concern about the absence of a manual override or stop controls for automatic doors, identifying it as a security lapse. CCTV footage of the incident has been secured for use as evidence. There were several procedural lapses in how the couple gained access to the dog and their attempt to leave BIA.

Bella, a Burmese mountain dog, accompanied Sarrah Alduaij and Ibrahim Alfraih inside the cabin of a Kuwait Airways flight that landed in BIA at 10.30 a.m. on July 27. The dog was allowed on board (and not confined to the cargo hold) as Ms Alduaij was diagnosed with an “emotional disorder for which an emotional support animal will help provide her with the relief that traditional medication cannot”.

Kuwait Airways said it had followed International Air Transport Association (IATA) regulations in allowing the dog to travel in the cabin. Only medically certified service animals are permitted. The couple had a certificate from a licensed clinical social worker in Florida, USA, stating that, “The passenger needs her dog to travel as emotional support or psychiatric service animal for air travel and activity at her destination”.

Once on ground, however, the couple had refused to comply with Sri Lankan quarantine requirements. A quarantine officer first saw the dog near luggage belt 2.

The animal had arrived from the aircraft to the airport through the cargo belt in its carrier. The carrier was on the ground while Bella was on her leash when the quarantine officer approached the couple and asked for the dog’s paperwork.

Ms Alduaij was walking towards the Customs green channel at the time and allegedly ignored the officer’s instructions to proceed to the quarantine section at BIA which is between the luggage belts and customs.

The couple did not hand over the required documentation and entered into a heated exchange of words with the officer, said a senior member of the Animal Quarantine Unit, on condition of anonymity. “They said they were in a hurry and could not waste time in quarantine,” he narrated.

Another quarantine officer confirmed that the couple was advised to submit the dog for a medical checkup and handover documentation but ignored all instructions and walked with Bella towards the Customs area through the green channel, intending to leave BIA.

Ibrahim Alfraih with Bella as they appeared on social media

Customs officers, now notified that the dog had not undergone quarantine clearance, followed Ms Alduaij who was handling the dog. Quarantine clearance is a prerequisite before duty is paid for the dog. Customs insisted that the dog should have been transported in a carrier until out of the airport but it had been taken out after leaving the luggage belt.

The Customs officers followed Ms Alduaij through the green channel and intercepted her in the arrival lounge. Many visitors were in the area to meet incoming passengers. Some recorded the scene with their mobile phones. A further argument broke out between Ms Alduaij and Customs officials, only one of whom was female.

Customs guards and superintendents verbally requested Ms Alduaij to stop, said Vipula Minuwanpitiya, Deputy Director Customs (Prevention). The husband was also with her. She allegedly resisted by “kicking” and attacking the female officer who was attempting to escort her back. In the Customs area, she reportedly turned abusive. “They did not want to waste time, they wanted to leave,” said Mr Minuwanpitiya.

Footage taken on mobile phones and circulated on social media shows Ms Alduaij walking up to and shoving or slapping a Customs officer in the chest. Staff claimed she also struck him. The officer then retaliates, causing her to fall to the ground. The husband, who is of Sri Lankan descent, then lunges at the officer before he is dragged away while hitting out at others. The couple is separated and restrained. They were then handed over to the police for further action.

They were produced before Additional Magistrate Nelson Kumararatna and released on Rs 200,000 surety bail each. They were instructed to appear on Monday and a further date was set for August 10. They were ordered not to leave the country and their passports were handed over to court.

They are charged with disorderly conduct, obstructing and intimidating the work of State officials, assaulting and causing injury. Reports of the Judicial Medical Officer (JMO) on injuries sustained by Customs officers admitted to hospital were handed over to court via police.

Ms Alduaij and Mr Alfraih were summoned for a Customs inquiry on Tuesday. The dog was ordered to be produced for a medical examination at the Veterinary Hospital in Welisara on Thursday. It was released to the owners after the check-up.

The couple was not immediately available for comment. Their attorney, M B M Mahir, claimed they had obtained approval for the dog before arriving in Sri Lanka, taken additional blood reports and even sent blood samples to the Department of Animal Production and Health at Peradeniya.

The lawyer said his clients were also assaulted by Customs officials. “How can two lean persons assault five officials?” he asked. “The incident can adversely affect tourism as it will give a bad image to the country.”

But quarantine officials insisted that it was compulsory for animals to pass through them to prevent diseases entering the country. “Whether or not it is a ‘service animal’, procedure should have been followed,” a senior officer said. “The documents were incomplete as they had not checked for a particular disease.”

“If documents are unavailable and tests seem inconclusive, the animal will be deported or even euthanized,” he continued. “But more often than not, as Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country, animals will be sent back at the expense of the importer or quarantined for a long period until they get a clean bill of health.”

Couple reportedly ignored qurantine procedures last year too

Sarrah Alduaij and Ibrahim Alfraih visited Sri Lanka on October 27, 2017, with Bella and ignored quarantine procedures, walking out of the airport with the dog, the Sunday Times learns.

A complaint was lodged by the Quarantine Unit and a police investigation had been launched. But there had been a delay in the probe and they left the country with the pet, only to return and disregard procedures again.

At the time, the couple had come up to the Quarantine Unit at BIA but without stepping inside, had pushed two officials and hastened through Customs, once again exposing glaring shortfalls in procedures.

Customs officials said that a police officer who handled the previous investigation–Inspector of Police Fernando–was seen in civvies at the site of the incident on July 27.

He later returned in uniform, they claimed, adding that he was heard addressing Mr Alfraih as “sir” and conversing with him in Sinhala.

Quarantine officers have no enforcement powers. And there are only a few of them to stop pathogens from entering the country. Customs intervenes in some cases.

Meanwhile, some foreign nationals bypass quarantine altogether.

Seven policemen were sent to the site of the incident last week, said Acting OIC of Airport Police IP Anusha Rupasinghe. Among them was IP Fernando. When contacted, IP Fernando denied supporting the couples but acknowledged he handled the earlier case. He said he had documents to prove it was withdrawn by the Quarantine Unit at BIA.

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