Hang unto death | Daily News

Hang unto death

The revelation by President Maithripala Sirisena that he proposes to implement the death penalty shortly has reignited a controversy that has been around for many months and also elicited sharp responses from the international community.

Addressing heads of media institutions last week, President Sirisena revealed that he had signed the documents for the execution of four high-profile drug offenders currently on death row and said that it would be carried out soon. The convicts and their next of kin are yet to be informed of the decision, the President said. He said that once informed, the convicts could appeal for clemency from the President.

The President’s statement reportedly caused consternation among death row prisoners at Welikada. According to prison reports, there are 455 persons who had been given the death sentence who are presently being held in several prisons, most of them at the Welikada prison.

Of the 195 countries recognised by the United Nations, 105 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes and 55 countries retain capital punishment. Thirty-five countries retain the death penalty but have not implemented it for a decade or more. Sri Lanka falls in to the last category.

As such, Sri Lanka still retains the death penalty within its legal system. After gaining Independence, capital punishment was first abolished by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1956. Ironically, it was reintroduced after his assassination in September 1959. His assassin, Thalduwe Somarama, was executed in July 1962. Sri Lanka’s last execution took place in 1976.

That was because the government of J. R. Jayewardene introduced changes to the law governing capital punishment when it enacted the new Constitution, decreeing that executions should be decided 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.

Resuming the death penalty

Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, when she was in office, tried to reintroduce the death penalty especially after the assassination of High Court Judge Sarath Ambepitiya but she had to back down in the face of strong public sentiment against it.

President Sirisena has however justified his decision to reintroduce capital punishment, saying it is being done to protect the nation’s future generations. “The lives of schoolchildren, university students and the youth are at risk because of drug trafficking. If we are to protect them, the death penalty should be carried out against drug traffickers.

I consider those opposed to this move as people who are aiding and abetting the drug traffickers,” the President said at an event in Polonnaruwa.

The President also said that he had spoken to United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres by telephone and explained his decision to implement the death penalty in Sri Lanka. That is probably because there have been sharp international reactions since the President’s announcement about implementing the death penalty shortly.

The strongest response came from the European Union (EU) which hinted that the Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) Plus status which Sri Lanka lost in 2010 but regained in 2017 could now be in jeopardy.

In a statement, the EU said it would monitor 27 international conventions relating to the GSP Plus commitment, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. “Resuming the death penalty would send a wrong signal to the international community, investors and partners of the country. Such a move would directly contradict Sri Lanka’s commitment taken at the 73rd United Nations General Assembly in December 2018 to maintain the moratorium,” it noted.

Britain also declared that it would have to review assistance to Sri Lanka if the death penalty was to be implemented. “We are deeply concerned at reports that Sri Lanka intends to abandon its long-standing moratorium on the implementation of the death penalty. The UK opposes the use of the death penalty in all circumstances as a matter of principle. It would require the UK to review its technical assistance programmes on relevant policing, defence and other security issues if the death penalty was implemented,” the British Foreign Office said.

Canada has also expressed similar sentiments. “We strongly and unequivocally oppose the use of the death penalty in all cases. This form of punishment is incompatible with human dignity and can lead to irreversible miscarriages of justice. No justice system is immune from error,” the Canadian High Commission in Colombo said in a statement.

Ironically, the United Nations body tasked to tackle drug related issues, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) also expressed its reservations, stating that reinstating the death penalty may, in fact, hinder the campaign against drugs.

Drug related offences

Issuing a statement in response to enquiries regarding reports from Sri Lanka on the application of the death penalty, UNODC said that since there are national laws that do not allow the exchange of information and extradition with countries which impose capital punishment for drug related offences, international cooperation to fight drug trafficking could be hampered.

“The three international drug control conventions which form the foundation of the global drug control system that had been agreed to by nearly every country in the world, cannot be used to justify the use of the death penalty for drug-related offences alone,” it said.

Apart from the reaction from the international community, opposition also came in the form of petitions against the proposed measures. Initially, journalist Malinda Seneviratne filed a writ petition in the Court of Appeal. When the matter was taken up by the court, the Commissioner General of Prisons assured the court that no prisoner would be executed within the next seven days.

A series of fundamental rights applications followed. Filing these ten applications were a group of religious leaders and professionals, the Centre for Policy Alternatives as well as several prisoners who are in death row. As the campaign against the death penalty gathers momentum, more such applications are likely.

Support for the campaign against the death penalty also came from an unexpected source- Leader of the Opposition and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa, a lawyer by profession, did not implement the death penalty during his two terms of office and in fact, pardoned a person condemned to death.

Rajapaksa said this week that he had always been against the implementation of the death penalty and had refused to sign any death warrants during his term of office and cautioned President Sirisena against acting hastily. “Even I was given these documents but I didn’t sign them.

The President has highlighted the word ‘drugs’ as the reason to implement the death penalty. This is not the way to act,” Rajapaksa said but dismissed the idea that the President was being influenced by upcoming elections.

While these sentiments come from Rajapaksa whose Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) is in a dialogue with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) headed by President Sirisena, no such opposition has been voiced by the ruling United National Party (UNP) which has maintained a stoic silence on the issue.

The only reaction has come from Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe whose office said that he had “met with the foreign ambassadors regarding the President’s decision to implement the death penalty. They have expressed their concerns over this development”. However, there was no reference to the Prime Minister’s own views on the issue.

International organisations

Despite the growing opposition to the proposal to reintroduce the death penalty, President Sirisena appears unmoved. Addressing the Western Province ceremony of the National Drug Prevention Week in Colombo on Monday, President Sirisena said that he believes certain international organisations are attempting to intimidate Sri Lanka after the decision to re-enforce capital punishment against drug dealers.

“Those who did not give their slightest support for the battle against eradicating drugs during the last four and half years are now trying to vilify me in the face of tough action taken against drug kingpins,” he said and added that the hand of drug traffickers was also evident in the Easter Sunday attacks in April which killed over 250 persons.

The current debate on the death penalty also highlights another matter: this is an issue for which legislation already exists and the discretion to use that legislation remains the prerogative of the President. Because it does not require new laws or approval from Parliament, there is little the government can do, even if it wishes to oppose the death penalty.

While there are petitions that are being submitted in the highest courts of the land, these petitions too must be assessed and judged in accordance with the existing laws of the land. While the reintroduction of the death penalty is a subject that strongly divides opinion, most legal analysts believe that it is entirely in accordance with the law with preceding Presidents merely opting not to implement capital punishment.

The past four and a half years has demonstrated that President Maithripala Sirisena has a penchant for unusual decisions. He almost thrives on such issues. As such, it would surprise very few people if he follows through with his decision and implements the death penalty shortly. From his perspective, it would be one more way in which he would etch his name in the annals of history.


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