Doubts over death penalty

By Sarah Hannan

President Maithripala Sirisena’s statement declaring that he has already authorised the hanging of four inmates on death row and that the sentences will be carried out soon created much controversy last week. However, doubts have now been cast over carrying out the death penalty any time soon.

According to the recruitment procedure of the Department of Prisons, the authorised person to appoint the hangman is the Prisons Commissioner General, who is granted power by the Public Service Commission of Sri Lanka (PSCSL).

While the Department of Prisons has provisions to recruit two qualified persons to the post, the shortlisting process still remains incomplete at the Department’s end, The Sunday Morning learnt.

Meanwhile, media outlets speculated that President Sirisena himself would take the task of selecting two persons from the list and appointing them to the post of hangman.

When The Sunday Morning contacted Department of Prisons Commissioner General T.M.J. Wijenath Thennakoon to clarify the validity of the speculation, he stated that it is in the President’s power to appoint the hangman to the post and he had merely provided an update on how the interview process was going on. However, he and his interview panel were yet to select the best fit for the post.

When asked whether there was a set date to re-activate the gallows, Thennakoon noted that much-needed renovations were still underway at the Welikada Closed Prison and setting the date to carry out the sentences would be a decision of the judiciary.

With close to 1,200 convicts sentenced to death and a good half of that having their appeals pending hearing, the Commissioner General stated that, in his personal view, carrying out the death penalty was not the best of practices at this juncture.

“For now, we are only fulfilling the Department’s requirement of recruiting two people for the post of hangman and we are yet to appoint them. Carrying out a death sentence is not a personal decision the President of the country could make,” Thennakoon said.

Opposing the death penalty

Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) President Kalinga Indatissa PC last week shared his view on the death penalty on his personal social media handle.

Indatissa pointed out that death penalty would work in a governing system which had no loopholes. Yet, with his personal observances over the past three decades, Sri Lanka has only exhibited abuse of power at the hands of the Police where they overshadowed the legal system.

“I have seen abuse of power; I have seen how some confessions have been recorded in a language not understood by the maker. I have seen fabrications. I have seen people being sentenced because the State or a politician doesn’t like his face, his thinking, or his affiliations. I have seen families lamenting over the remanding of their loved ones,” he said.

He further narrated that the situation was not limited to Sri Lanka alone. The western world which speaks of human rights and justice, things as such happen in a sophisticated and fine-tuned manner that no one can see. With such loopholes, Indatissa noted that there was always the possibility that the wrong person may be sentenced to death.

“That is the sole reason I am opposed to executions. Not from a human rights angle, not from a so-called civil society angle, not from an NGO angle, but from a very practical angle which I have seen over three decades. I was a believer that capital punishment would reduce the crime wave. That was three decades ago. I was wrong and I feel ashamed for thinking like that,” he expressed.

He urged anyone who favours capital punishment to read cases of Birmingham Six and Guildford Four – cases that depict two of the greatest miscarriages of justice under the British legal system, which is to-date considered a fair and independent legal system.

“If it happened there, wouldn’t it happen here?” Indatissa questioned. “I would like to ask my brothers and sisters in the legal profession, those at the Criminal Bar, one simple question. In your careers, hasn’t there been at least one case where you were convinced that a wrong person has been sentenced? Do not blame the court system of this country. The honourable judges are chosen for that role and would make orders on the brief presented to them. Ours is an adversarial system. The role of a judge is limited.”

Abolish death penalty

“Re-activating the gallows has become a matter of controversy, given that we are in 2019. If we are to implement this practice once again, we are definitely going to be criticised by world leaders and human rights defenders. It could also result in Sri Lanka losing certain concessions and accessibility to conduct trade with the outside world. As the national body for human rights, in 2016, we recommended the death penalty to be abolished from Sri Lanka,” a spokesperson from the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) stated.

In a letter addressed to President Maithripala Sirisena, the HRCSL brought to attention that by implementing the death penalty, Sri Lanka would be seriously violating several human rights, including the right to life and freedom from cruel and inhumane punishment.

The HRCSL spokesperson further noted that the death penalty was considered an extreme and irreversible punishment and ineffective as a deterrent to crime. Moreover, Sri Lanka should join hands with over 100 countries in the world which have abolished the death penalty to date to demonstrate its commitment to the sanctity of life and fundamental human rights principles, the spokesperson added.

With the subject Minister being out of the country, several attempts were made to contact the Secretary to the Ministry of Justice and Prison Reforms for comment on this matter. However, all attempts made were futile at the time the newspaper was sent to press.

Chronicles of the death penalty in Sri Lanka

  • 1802 – The barbaric methods of punishment that existed until then were banned and causing death by hanging was introduced by Governor Sir Fredrick North
  • 1812 – The first person to be hanged on a fixed gallows in the history of prisons in Sri Lanka was on 10 February. The death sentence was imposed on him for rising against the British Government
  • 1871 – The first gallows was built in the Welikada Prison on 25 May
  • 1883 – An ordinance to provide a general penal code for the colony sentence of death carried into effect within the walls of the prison in which the prisoner is confined at the time of execution (Ordinance No. 3 of 1883)
  • 1956 – Suspension of the death penalty in Sri Lanka
  • 1959 – Appointment of the Commission on the Death Penalty in Sri Lanka under the chairmanship of Prof. Norval Morris, Sessional Paper XIV of 1959
  • 1960 – Re-introduction of the death penalty
  • 1976 – Final execution carried out at the gallows at Welikada on 23 June