Secrecy behind execution order

By Maheesha Mudugamuwa

The purported order signed by President Maithripala Sirisena to execute four convicts on death row is shrouded in complete secrecy, with officials claiming that they are in the dark as to who is to be executed and when.

A push to suspend attempts to implement the death penalty saw a temporary victory on Friday after the Supreme Court issued a stay order against implementing the death penalty till October.

On 26 June, during a meeting with media heads in Colombo, the President said that he signed the documents for the execution of four convicts on death row for drug-related offences.

However, when The Sunday Morning contacted Secretary to the Ministry of Justice R.M.D.B. Meegasmulla, he said the Presidential Secretariat did not yet inform the names of the convicts or the date on which the executions should be carried out. None of the documents were received by the Ministry, he added. When asked who had given the names of the prisoners picked to be executed, Meegasmulla said the Ministry did not give any list or did not know the persons named to be executed. However, a few months back, when requested by the Presidential Secretariat, the Department of Prisons had passed on a list of the convicts on death row after which the Ministry had forwarded the list to the Presidential Secretariat.

When contacted, an official at the Department of Prisons who wished to remain anonymous told The Sunday Morning that they gave information when requested by the Presidential Secretariat but had no authority to select the prisoners to be executed.

On death row

Criminal lawyer and former President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) U.R. de Silva PC said that 1,299 people were given the death sentence from the High Court of Sri Lanka as of 2018, out of which 1,215 are men and 84 are women.

However, after appealing to the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court, there are 470 convicts on death row at present, comprising 459 males, five females, and six foreigners, de Silva said.

After independence, then Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike abolished capital punishment in 1956. However, it was reintroduced after his assassination in 1959. Records show that the last hanging in Sri Lanka took place on 23 June 1976 – a convict named Embilipitiye Chandradasa alias “Honda Papuwa”.

However, at present, killing drug offenders is an idea President Sirisena seemed to have picked up from the Philippines; President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte supervised mass vigilante killings of alleged drug dealers and users. During his visit to the Philippines earlier this year, President Sirisena commended the Philippines’ state-sanctioned massacre as “an example to the world” and vowed to bring the death penalty for drug offenders to Sri Lanka. According to international media reports, in the past decade, more than 3,940 people globally were executed for drug offences. Half of all countries worldwide that impose capital punishment for drug crimes are in Asia.

In the Philippines, President Duterte’s violent and controversial war on drugs is said to have failed to make a meaningful change, proving, on the contrary, to be a political disaster for his presidency.

As claimed by international experts; instead of being offered rehabilitation, drug dependence treatment, harm reduction, counselling, and other psychosocial as well as physical health-related support services; suspected drug users and offenders – mostly in Asian countries already marginalised in society – are overwhelmingly criminalised; resulting in dire consequences for them, their families, and their communities as a whole.

Speaking to The Sunday Morning, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) MP Sunil Handunnetti stressed that they vehemently oppose the President’s decision to re-impose the death penalty.

“What actually should be done is to first address the issues in society. It is also important to equip the relevant institutions with high-technology tools and methods to ensure drugs do not enter the country,” he stressed.

Handunnetti also noted that the Government should take strict measures to apprehend the drug kingpins and should first stop the drug flow into the country.

However, Police Narcotics Bureau (PNB) Director T.C.A. Dhanapala noted that there was a reduction in drug usage as the prices increased as a result of the reduction of drugs entering the market. The PNB launched several awareness campaigns to educate the people about the consequences of consuming these drugs. The PNB continuously conducts raids and at present, it sees a slight reduction in cases, he added.

A sensitive social issue

Highlighting the legal aspects of the death penalty in Sri Lanka, former Cabinet Minister and lawyer Anura Priyadarshana Yapa told The Sunday Morning that in Sri Lanka, the death penalty was in the country’s law books. Accordingly, the death penalty is pronounced by a judge and the time and the place of the execution is decided by the president.

According to Yapa, there are two outlooks on the death penalty. One is that it shouldn’t be imposed as there were questions about the investigation process conducted by the police officers. The other is that drug use in this country has alarmingly increased. There are various people inside and outside of the country involved in drug abuse and trafficking, Yapa explained, adding that the youngsters are getting involved in using and selling drugs at an alarming rate. As a deterrent, the Government thinks that some of the large-scale convicts need to be hanged.

“But my argument is that it is a long process. The drug issue is everywhere in the world and every country is suffering because of it. Before the death sentence is re-imposed, our law enforcement agencies and the prison system must be strengthened. Also, it is important to remember that once an individual is detained and sent to remand prison, that’s where he/she actually learns all the dirty tricks about drug dealing,” he emphasised.

“Most of the people in remand cells involved in drug dealings may be assisted by prison officers themselves – this is a well-known fact. The other issue is the social issue. Most of the youngsters don’t have opportunities to find jobs of their preferences. My argument is when such social issues go unaddressed, the youngsters are compelled to either sell or use drugs. This pattern of society must transform, so that there won’t be any avenue for them to be involved in drugs,” Yapa explained.

Meanwhile, former Minister Chandima Weerakkody stressed that the country should be very careful when addressing the issue of drugs, especially as Sri Lanka is receiving negative international attention.

Twelve fundamental rights (FR) petitions were filed in the Supreme Court seeking an interim order directing the Commissioner General of Prisons and Welikada Prison Superintendent not to carry out any executions.

On Friday, when the petitions filed against the death sentence were taken up for consideration, the Supreme Court issued an injunction order preventing the implementation of the death penalty till 30 October.