Sri Lanka 'wheelchair tax' condemned by UK charity

Consignment of PhysioNet charity wheelchairs being unloaded in Sri Lanka
Image caption The wheelchairs are for Tamil people injured in the war

The head of a UK charity that sent a consignment of wheelchairs to Sri Lanka has condemned the decision to impose customs duties of over $8,000 (£5,180).

Peter Thompson, of the Yorkshire-based PhysioNet charity, said the shipment for Tamil war victims also took more than three months to clear customs.

The Sri Lankan authorities said the delay was because paperwork for the shipment was not properly completed.

They said all shipments arriving in Colombo are subject to duty payments.

But Mr Thompson said the $8,000 (1m Sri Lankan rupees) that had to be paid in customs duties and port storage fees was unacceptable.

He argued that the delay in clearing the shipment - which contained 322 wheelchairs and other mobility items for disabled Tamil war victims - meant that the bill had to be paid before it was allowed to be transported to the north of the country.

The shipment was sent by PhysioNet in conjunction with a Sri Lankan Tamil charity based in the UK and the Roman Catholic church; together they met all of the costs of getting the consignment to Sri Lanka.

"But problems arose in Colombo when it took three months to clear the docks," Mr Thompson told the BBC.

"This is a record for the longest time one of our shipments has languished on the docks of a recipient country - and that includes some of the most corrupt and inefficient countries in Africa."

Mr Thompson said the Sri Lankan authorities appeared to put up obstacles every step of the way to prevent the shipment from being speedily delivered.

"Only following endless paperwork and the payment of $8,000 was the container released and allowed to be transported to the north of the country," he said.

"During the three months it took for these problems to be resolved, the demurrage charges were building up substantially in Colombo.

"It's difficult to conclude that this is anything other than a glaring example of the Sri Lankan authorities victimising the Tamil community."

The Sri Lankan government in May 2009 defeated Tamil Tigers rebels fighting for independence in the north and east of the country after a bitterly-fought war spanning two decades.

Mr Thompson said his charity hoped to send another shipment to Sri Lanka next year, "but only if there are some assurances that this unhappy experience will not be repeated".

A spokesman for the port authority in Colombo that handled the consignment said all imports - including those brought in for charitable purposes - are subject to import duties.

He said the delay in clearing the wheelchairs was because various government ministries had to give their permission before shipments to the north were allowed to go ahead.

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