Focus/Spotlight

Death penalty hangs in the balance

By Tharumalee Silva

The implementation of the death penalty hangs in the balance with Justice Minister Thalatha Athukorala insisting that a new noose will not be imported despite recommendations made by the Sri Lanka Standards Institute.

The old noose at the Prisons Department was found to be in a poor state and the authorities have now begun the process to purchase a new noose.

A list has, meanwhile, been sent to President Maithripala Sirisena with the names of the convicts on death row for serious drug-related crimes.

Department of Prisons Spokesman Thushara Upuldeniya told The Sunday Morning that the department was awaiting instructions from the President on who among the convicts must be executed.

The noose at the Welikada Prison, where the executions are scheduled to eventually take place, is around 10-years-old and is now no longer suitable to be used for an execution.

The noose has been sent to the Sri Lanka Standards Institute (SLSI) for testing while a committee was appointed to look at the condition of the noose. The committee includes officials from the Department of Prisons and SLSI.

Since Sri Lanka does not have a specific standard for ropes, the committee has recommended that the Department of Prisons import a new noose from a country which has a standard quality for ropes, such as Malaysia and Bangladesh, so the SLSI can examine it and give their recommendations, a committee member who did not wish to be named told The Sunday Morning.

However, when contacted, Minister Athukorala insisted that claims that a new noose would be imported were misleading.

Hangman wanted

Applications for the post of an executioner were also called by the Department of Prisons. The job criteria states that the eligible candidates must be within the age of 18-45 with at least six passes for the G.C.E. Ordinary Level examination and at least two credit level passes for no more than two sittings.

In terms of other qualifications, the Department of Prisons requests persons who have great moral character. Individuals who were convicted for character-based crimes will be disqualified.

The candidates who qualify under the listed criteria are then referred to an examination conducted by the National Hospital to test the candidate’s mental capacities.

The executioners will be appointed to the vacancies available according to the enumerated results obtained by each candidate.

The candidates should further obtain a testimonial to the candidate’s signature from either a principal of a government school, Justice of Peace, notary public, commissioned officer of Sri Lanka Armed Forces, a gazetted officer of Sri Lanka Police, or an officer in a government post obtaining a basic annual salary of Rs. 240,360.

The deadline for applications for the post of executioner is mentioned as not later than 25 February, 2019.

The death penalty in motion

Speaking to The Sunday Morning, Secretary to the Ministry of Justice Nalin Rajapakshe confirmed that the procedures are already in motion to carry out the death penalty. He reiterated that the death penalty would be implemented only for convicts with serious drug offences at the moment.

Rajapakshe explained the procedures of executing a convict. He stated that a convict who is facing a death penalty had the right to file an application to appeal court; if the appeal court finds the convict guilty, the Attorney General’s Department carries out further investigations on the matter.

Only if the Attorney General’s Department also deems and affirms the individual guilty will the documents be handed over to the President to finalise the execution. When inquired about the fate of the families of the individuals who would be executed, Rajapakshe stated that the convicts cannot help their families from within prison either, therefore the families of the executed would have the same fate as those of the convicts who faced life imprisonment.

Also speaking on the matter, Ven. Omalpe Sobhitha Thera stated that the death penalty should be carried out without hesitation from the President. He further stated that the President’s prime duty was to protect his people and the way he did it would not be an issue according to the “Agganya Sutra” in the “Deegha” chapter.

No desired effect

According to research conducted by the National Research Council of the National Academies (NRC) based in the US, the repercussions of the death penalty were “fundamentally flawed”.

Furthermore, nations such as the US experience higher murder rates in states with the death penalty than states without the death penalty.

In 2016, there was a 25% difference in crime rates of death penalty and non-death penalty states; while states with the death penalty experienced a higher crime rate of 5.63%, states without the death penalty experienced a consistently lower crime rate of 4.49%. However, the highest number of executions was carried out by China, holding 87% of the world’s overall executions.

Amnesty International Regional Researcher Thyagi Ruwanpathirana told The Sunday Morning that resuming executions in Sri Lanka after more than 40 years was a mistake.

“There is no evidence to support the claim that the death penalty acts as a deterrent against crime. To be specific, global trends show that the death penalty has failed to stop drug-related crime in governments’ efforts to protect citizens from the harmful effects of drug use.

Governments must ideally explore long-term solutions like adopting policies that tackle social inequalities that lead people to engage in the drug market, rehabilitation, and addressing issues in the criminal justice system. Furthermore, under international law, the death penalty can only be imposed for the most serious crimes, such as murder. Therefore, execution for drug-related crimes is a violation of international law.”

Research indicates that most countries use lethal injections (barbiturate, paralytic, potassium solution, or a mix) as a more humane method of execution as it causes immediate death, while hanging causes the convict to choke for several minutes before passing away.

When contacted one of the leading psychologist and psychotherapist Nivendra Uduman, he statedthat the death penalty went against what we as a country stand for – kindness and compassion.

In his expert opinion, there were many other ways of curbing these crimes. He recommended the use of a portion of the money that was used on the alcohol and tobacco industry on providing proper rehabilitation for convicts with these types of offences. He explained the imposition of the death penalty as an “easy way out”.

“I also believe that we need to separate users from peddlers and dealers. A common notion is that a person who sells substances will most likely never use substances. Users can be rehabilitated if proper, evidence-based approaches are used instead of haphazard treatment approaches. We also need to do more research to really understand the dynamics of substance-use in Sri Lanka,” Uduman said.

He also believed that using fear as a way of controlling citizens of a country was yet to prove effective.

In accordance, in some states, the convict has the power to sue the government by law if the death penalty was not carried out properly, due to the immense amount of physical suffering the convict would have to endure.

Discussing the issue at hand, Prof. Prathiba Mahanamahewa expressed that the death penalty should not be imposed on prisoners in Sri Lanka; if it is imposed, he further added, it would be a clear violation of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s “right to life”.

He also suggested that “capital punishment should be converted into life imprisonment”. Prof. Mahanamahewa also stressed that standardisation was needed to provide proper rehabilitation for prisoners.

The last known man to be executed in Sri Lanka was “Maru Sira” on 7 August, 1975, and another notable execution was the execution of Ven. Talduwe Somarama who was convicted of the assassination of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. The last known president to attempt to reintroduce

the death penalty was former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.