The hanging question | Daily News

The hanging question

Party politics was briefly overshadowed by the controversial announcement from President Maithripala Sirisena last week that he was willing to implement the death penalty for convicted drug traffickers who, it was reported, continued to mastermind trafficking even while they were in prison.

President Sirisena said that although there may be a conflict between being a Buddhist and enforcing the death penalty, he was prepared to take that decision in the interests of future generations in the country and therefore he did not see this as a ‘sin’.

The announcement, made at a public function in Kandy has led to varied reactions both domestically and internationally and both for and against the decision. The government has however indicated that it intends to pursue with plans to implement the death penalty.

Later, Cabinet Spokesman Minister Rajitha Senaratne was to elaborate on the decision, stating the government had drawn inspiration from the Philippines where President Rodrigo Duterte has embarked on an all-out war against drug trafficking while enforcing the death penalty. Subsequently, it was reported that Duterte had commended President Sirisena’s decision.

In reality, though, the death penalty has been in Sri Lanka’s statutes for many years. However, it has not been implemented. The country also has a history of having diverse policies on capital punishment being adopted by successive governments.

For example, in 1956, after assuming office, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike abolished capital punishment. Ironically, it was his own assassination in 1959 that prompted its reinstatement. Talduwe Somarama, the Buddhist monk convicted of killing Bandaranaike, was executed in 1962.

Judicial execution

In 1977, J R Jayewardene campaigning on a slogan of a ‘dharmishta’ or righteous society, steamrolled into office with a five-sixths majority in Parliament. As it enacted the 1978 Constitution, it wrote into law that executions should be imposed by a trial judge, authorised by the Attorney General and Minister of Justice and ratified by the President. This effectively put an end to executions. The last judicial execution in the country was carried out in 1976.

Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, when she was in office, tried to reintroduce the death penalty but had to back down in the face of public sentiment against it. Since then, there has been a sporadic public debate about the issue, especially when the country is faced with a crime wave or serious drug-related offences.

It is left to be seen whether President Sirisena will be able to follow through with his declared intentions. This is because of the intense reaction the issue has generated over a short period of time from a broad cross-section of Sri Lankan society as well as internationally.

Among those taking issue locally was the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL). Its chairperson, Dr. Deepika Udugama, while acknowledging that drug-related problems were a major social issue, strongly opposed the proposed move.

The death penalty was a “cruel and inhumane punishment and seriously violated several human rights, including the right to life and freedom and was an extreme and irreversible punishment but ineffective as a deterrent” Dr. Udugama stated, noting that drug-related issues “could be curbed only by apprehending drug traffickers efficiently and enforcing serious punishments appropriate to their crimes, not by implementing punishments such as the death penalty”.

There were swift international reactions as well. The European Union (EU), which strongly opposes the death penalty, condemned the move. The EU embassy in Colombo said the death penalty is incompatible with human dignity, does not have any proven deterrent effect, and allows judicial errors to become fatal and irreversible.

The EU, together with the British and Canadian High Commissions and the embassies of France, Germany, Netherlands, Romania and Norway have urged President Sirisena to “maintain the moratorium on the implementation of the death penalty and to uphold Sri Lanka's tradition of opposition to capital punishment”.

Following this statement, there were concerns that the EU could exert further pressure on Colombo by withdrawing economic concessions if the death penalty was to be reinstated but there is no official indication of this at present.

The international human rights organisation, Amnesty International (AI) has also joined those protesting the move. “Sri Lanka has been a leader in the region, with an enviable record of shunning this cruel and irreversible punishment at a time when many other countries persisted with it. Now, when most of the world has turned its back on the death penalty, it risks heading in the wrong direction and joining a shrinking minority of states that persist with this horrific practice”, AI said in a statement.

AI noted that Sri Lanka had repeatedly voted in favour of the moratorium on the implementation of the death penalty at the United Nations General Assembly, most recently in 2016. “There is no evidence that the death penalty has a unique deterrent effect against crime. Executions are never the solution and, for drug-related offences, constitute a violation of international law. Sri Lanka should choose a more humane and just path”, AI said.

Diverse views

Religious leaders, always an influential voice in Sri Lanka, have also had diverse views. Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith, head of the Catholic Church voiced conditional support. “Human life is valuable. We never agree to take away the life of any human. However, when people who have been convicted and sentenced to death continue to hurt others in an organised manner, it would only be fair to impose punishments on them,” Archbishop Ranjith said.

However, the Anglican Church had a different view. “The taking of human life is expressly condemned by the Church, whether by man or by the State”, it said in a statement and added that it “cannot in any way agree with the move to resume the execution of those sentenced to death for drug-related crimes”.

Interestingly, at the time of writing, the Buddhist clergy which has a significant influence on the majority of the population is yet formally to comment on the move.

This decision by President is likely to have political implications as well. Although it was announced that the Cabinet of ministers had been informed of the decision by President Sirisena and there were no reports of dissent from any minister, ministers continued to voice differing views publicly.

For instance, Wildlife Minister Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka appeared to support the move when he said that he has no trust in the assurance given to hang drug smugglers until a hanging is carried out.

Fonseka, reputed for being outspoken, said that if the death penalty is being implemented, there is no need to select only the convicted who are still engaged in drug smuggling. “It doesn’t matter whether you are inside or out. Action should be taken. I have no trust until it is done. It is commendable if it happens,” the former Army Commander said.

Drug-related crimes

State Minister of Power and Renewable Energy Ajith P. Perera had a different view. Perera stated that carrying out the death sentence will not stop crimes noting that this was his experience as a lawyer. However, he added that he would be supporting the President’s decision.

It is also significant that while President Sirisena has articulated his position, none of the major political parties- the United National Party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna or the Tamil National Alliance have formally adopted a stance on this issue.

The government meanwhile was pursuing a steadfast course of action. It was reported that a list of eighteen convicts who were sentenced to death for drug-related crimes had been submitted to the Justice and Prison Reforms Ministry.

As the issue continues to arouse interest and with national elections looming in less than two years, the issue of capital punishment has the potential to become a political hot potato. How President Maithripala Sirisena and other political leaders handle this controversy may have a bearing on the elections too- especially if the major parties adopt diverse positions on the issue. 


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