“To be hanged by the neck until you are dead,” are the ominous and menacing words that a convicted criminal hears when the presiding Judge passes the death sentence. Whether these words are heard or registered in the mind of the convict standing in the dock amid all the confusion that must be coursing through the mind when his or her future is being determined with a finality, is too difficult to imagine.
The implementation of the death penalty in Sri Lanka, though hanging in the air in recent months has taken centre-stage with President Maithripala Sirisena on June 26 signing the death warrants of four drug offenders who may soon become the first convicts to be judicially executed after a 43-year moratorium since the last such execution at the Welikada Prison on June 23, 1976.
The President told heads of media institutions last week that he completed the formalities to reactivate the death penalty, which he said was necessary to clamp down on the rampant narcotics trade.
He said the death row convicts, whose death warrants he had signed and their kith and kin were yet to be informed to prevent any possible unrest in the prisons. He had not said when the executions would be carried out, but that it would be soon.
Whether the executions would end the proliferation of narcotics and act as a deterrent to drug trafficking is a question that needs to be addressed on the basis that taking the life of another human being is not only inhumane but also an irreversible act.
The President’s decision to implement the death penalty came amid widespread concerns from several quarters here and abroad.
The excerpts from the views expressed by world leaders and international organisations calling for the abolition of the death penalty begins with Pope Francis declaring that the death penalty is wrong in all cases and that executions are unacceptable because they are “an attack” on human dignity. The Vatican announced that the Catholic Church would work “with determination” to abolish capital punishment worldwide.
Amnesty International said it was “alarmed” over media reports of moves to resume executions. “President Maithripala Sirisena must immediately halt his plans to resume executions,” it said adding that Sri Lanka was a party to the international convention on civil and political rights, with the abolition of the death penalty as a goal to be achieved.
The European Union says the re-institution of the death penalty will send wrong signals and affect Sri Lanka’s GSP+ facility. EU’s Foreign Affairs spokesperson Maja Kocijancic said the death penalty was a cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment and the EU unequivocally opposed its use in all circumstances and hoped Sri Lanka would uphold its international commitments.
Britain, in a statement said the implementation of the death penalty would inevitably make it more difficult to cooperate with Sri Lanka on law-enforcement issues including counter-terrorism. “We are deeply concerned at reports that Sri Lanka intends to abandon its longstanding moratorium on the death penalty and are opposed its use in all circumstances as a matter of principle,” it said.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesighe said the four main political parties represented in Parliament were against the implementation of the death sentence and that he would discuss this matter with the President shortly.
Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa said he had always opposed the implementation of the death penalty and had refused to sign any death warrants during his tenure. He urged the President not to act in haste using drug trafficking as the reason for doing so.
The opposition to the implementation of the death penalty is gaining momentum with some 15 fundamental rights petitions being filed in Court challenging the presidential move. The petitioners say the four major religions -- Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam -- practised in Sri Lanka recognise the right to life.
There is no gainsaying the fact that convicted criminals occupying the death row have been found guilty of committing heinous and despicable crimes against fellow human beings and against society. But the big question is whether a fallible president or for that matter, a fallible government should issue a decree to have a death row occupant, “hanged by the neck till he or she is dead”.
To do what is wrong in the belief it is right is a recipe for disaster.