President Maithripala Sirisena has vowed to reintroduce the death sentence on drug offenders, ending 42 years of moratorium. His desperation at his government’s failure to decisively respond to the resurgence of the underworld is understandable. His desire to project himself as the strongman in the mold of his predecessor was also palpable.
In a way, the president’s approach is not much different from that of UNP MP Vijayakala Maheswaran and the high priest of Kandy, both offered their own quick fixes to complex social problems. One wanted Prabhakaran, the other Hitler. The Head of the State ought to have done better.
Public opinion in this country on death sentence is divided, still it has not reached the point of extreme political polarization seen in some places, such as certain American states, where the debate over the death sentence is more of a political issue than a law and order matter or in Pakistan where a more arbitrary form of capital punishment for blasphemy is fiercely defended by the religious right. The President’s remarks have nonetheless provoked a debate and the religious, political and civil society leaders were seen both endorsing and opposing the death sentence. The Prisons Department has called for applications for the post of hangman.
Abeit the new found enthusiasm, the empiric truth about capital punishment is that it does more to generate bad press than deterring crime. That is not something Sri Lanka can afford as it tries to rebuild its image. The case of Indonesia is an example. The 2014 election of Joko Widodo popularly known as Jokowi who defeated the old guard generated a worldwide enthusiasm for the South East Asian state. Then the new president spoiled the party by authorizing the death sentence against a couple of drug smugglers, despite widespread international calls for a reprieve. Jakowi’s desire to project himself as the law and order strongman did not quite generate results. Indonesia, which has prided its multicultural identity even under Gen. Suharto is now threatened by invasive salafi extremism, which has already banished Jakarta’s Christian mayor to prison over trumped up blasphemy charges. When politicians indulge in simple populist solutions to complex problems, they do effectively empower the gutter, which would overtime swallow up the saner quarters of the public.
In places where there is a track record of more arbitrary pattern of administering death sentence, there are instances where executed prisoners were found to be innocent lately
Statistical data do not support the notion of death sentence as an effective deterrent against violent crime. Murder rate in America’s Southern states where 80% of death sentence is carried out is twice as high as north eastern states where less than 1% of death sentence is carried out.
The death sentence is also irrevocable once it is carried out. In places where there is a track record of more arbitrary pattern of administering death sentence, there are instances where executed prisoners were found to be innocent lately. In one such incident, a court in China’s Inner Mongolia in 2014, declared as innocent a teenager who was executed 18 years ago after being convicted of rape and murder.
President Sirisena’s proposal of death sentence is far more calculated and selective. He wants to execute convicts who have already been sentenced to death for drug smuggling and distribution and continue to oversee the illicit trade from behind the bars. There are19 convicts whose death sentence has not yet been commuted to life imprisonment and are said to be running underworld operations from their prison cells. Some others have their appeals pending, and it would be a longtime before the president can sign their death sentence. For others whose death sentence has already been commuted, the presidential directive has no legal effect. They can continue their business from the prison.
Within his constitutional remits and subject to recommendation of the attorney general, the president can go ahead with his threat and hang a couple of death row prisoners. That would hardly solve the drug menace. Their will be plenty to fill in their shoes and to take over the trade. Most likely, by hanging a few, the president would create a global outcry -- already, the EU delegates have expressed opposition -- and could probably damage the livelihood of many hundreds of thousands in the garment industry which has been given new lease of life by the GSP Plus.
The President and the government need to be little more commensensical in devising an effective means to combat the underworld and drug trade.
If the problem is imprisoned drug barons running the show from the prison, the solution should be to step up prison security. In fact, placing violent hard core criminals with everyday petty criminals and drug addicts lead the latter to advanced criminality. Instead, the government should relocate hardcore criminals to a high security prison, where certain restrictions should be placed on the inmates.
Placing violent hard core criminals with petty criminals and drug addicts lead the latter to advanced criminality. Instead, the govt must relocate hardcore criminals to a high security prison
If the problem is rotten prison guards, the solution should be to set up something similar to the military police as a branch of the Prisons Department, which would keep a tab on nefarious elements.
The bigger problem however is underworld activism outside the prison walls and its regenerative capacity. Its resurgence is due to the fact that it has not been met with sufficient retributive cost. Think of this as a mini counter insurgency campaign and increase the cost of underworld criminality to the extent it is no longer cost effective for the criminals. How to do that is commonsense, but, the challenge is doing so without a tidal wave of negative publicity. Proportionality is the key. And whatever the security arm of the state that is assigned to the task should both be monitored so that it would not step out of its mandate, but also be given immunity through a Parliament act from future criminal prosecution in carrying out their mandate.
If the government hit hard enough, the underworld would crack like an egg. The government should do it before gangs become hardened. But death sentence is unlikely to help in pacifying the underworld.