We hear these days many voices against the statement made to the heads of media institutions last week by President Maithripala Sirisena that he had signed the documents for the implementation of the death sentence on four convicts. There are political party leaders and leaders of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) among those agitated by the announcement. Are all these voices against the implementation of the death sentence honest?
In a close scrutiny of the history of most of these political parties and NGOs one would get a negative answer to this question. They might have always expressed their opposition against the re-implementation of the capital punishment that was carried out last in 1976 in the country. But almost all of them, at some point of time in the history, have carried out or justified extra-judicial killings of their opponents or those who held views opposed to theirs.
In Sri Lanka, almost all political parties except for a few have ruled the country as individual parties or in coalition with other parties. And all governments that had assumed office after 1970 have been accused of carrying out extra-judicial killings. All parties in every government during that period have either denied the reports of those killings or justified them or not carried out proper investigations into them, leaving the public to decide who had been behind those crimes.
"Jayewardene and his successor Ranasinghe Premadasa were accused of brutality against the southern rebels, the JVP/ Deshapremi Janatha Vyaparaya (DJV) as well in 1988/89"
The country for the first time in the history saw dead bodies floating in rivers and burning on what were later called the “tyre pyres” during the first insurrection of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in 1971. It was said that over 20,000 suspected insurgents, most of whom were believed to be innocent youth had been killed in this manner during that insurgency.
These bodies on tyre pyres and in rivers were not of those killed in fighting or crossfire between the armed forces and the insurgents, rather they had been killed after being captured.
Never a member of any of the then ruling parties - Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and Communist Party of Sri Lanka (CPSL) had regretted those killings. They were not only extra-judicial killings but also committed as a method of capital punishment for the victims’ alleged involvement in the insurgency or sometimes for the mere moral support for it.
President J.R. Jayewardene set December 31, 1979 as a deadline for the then Security Forces Commander, Jaffna T.I.Weeratunga to eliminate the Tamil rebels, especially the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Brigadier Weeratunga failed to fulfill his assignment, but the people of Jaffna saw for the first time mutilated human bodies floating in the Jaffna lagoon during his assignment.
Jayewardene and his successor Ranasinghe Premadasa were accused of brutality against the southern rebels, the JVP/ Deshapremi Janatha Vyaparaya (DJV) as well in 1988/89. While mass killings were reported in places like Kokkattichcholai in the East, mass graves were later found at places such as Sooriyakanda and Hokandara in the southern parts of the country. The number of extra judicial killings in the south by the armed forces and the vigilante groups – PRRA, SRRA and Green Tigers - was placed at more than 60.000 by the then human rights activists such as Mahinda Rajapaksa and Vasudeva Nanayakkara, despite the southern rebellion still being called “JVP bheeshanaya.”
The Chandrika Kumaratunga government was accused for the disappearance of more than 600 people during the military operations code named Riviresa and Sathjaya in 1995/96. The allegations of extra-judicial killings and disappearances of civilians against the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime landed the country in an UNHRC mess. The famous white vans was a phenomenon that belonged to the Rajapaksa regime. The Presidential commission (Maxwell Paranagama Commission) appointed by President Rajapaksa to investigate into the allegations of “disappearances” had received more than 19,000 complaints. Except for a few cases, the term “disappearance” seems to stand for killing after abduction.
There is no doubt that almost all these extra-judicial killings were a method of capital punishment carried out for expressing views or acting against the incumbent government, despite a relatively small number of death sentences delivered by courts being under a moratorium, falsely signifying the sympathy and respect of the leaders of the government for human lives.
There is no gainsaying about the brutality of the southern or northern rebels either. The pinnacle of the JVP /DJV cruelty might be the butchering of the entire family including elderly women and children of the then DIG Southern Range Premadasa Udugampola in 1988. Two years before, in 1986, the LTTE had excelled all other armed groups in the country by cold-bloodedly murdering more than 400 members of the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO) including its leader Sri Sabarathnam, not in clashes but for not falling in line with them. More than 600 policemen who had surrendered to the LTTE in June 1990 were eliminated allegedly under the orders of the then Eastern commander of the outfit, Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan alias Karuna.
"Punishments in a cultured society are meant for the reformation of wrongdoers and not for revenge, it is argued. Yet, one would no longer live to be reformed, if he or she was executed as a punishment"
Everybody knows how the founder leader of the JVP, Rohana Wijeweera was killed on November 13 after being arrested by the army on the previous day. We do not remember any human rights organization, local or international - having called for an investigation into his controversial death.
Even now, there are calls for capital punishment even by stoning for the Kurunegala doctor who is amidst a controversy over alleged sterilization of women by him against their will, even before the allegations are proved. This is the real story behind the so-called moratorium on the death sentence. These double standards on capital punishment are, in fact an international norm.
Nevertheless, it goes without saying that the death sentence has never and nowhere totally deterred serious crimes such as rape, murder and those related to drugs. Nor have the other punishments totally eliminated other crimes either, questioning the validity of any punishment. Therefore one may argue on either way - for and against capital punishment. Many factors including education, culture, poverty and effectiveness of law enforcement mechanism contribute to the deterrence or proliferation of crimes. The effectiveness of capital punishment in elimination of crimes is hence not measurable. Therefore the suitability of it is also a matter that could be eternally argued.
Punishments in a cultured society are meant for the reformation of wrongdoers and not for revenge, it is argued. Yet, one would no longer live to be reformed, if he or she was executed as a punishment.
These arguments are basically theoretical and sometimes philosophical. However, the real face of a person with regard to death sentence would be seen when he or she becomes a party to the issue at hand. The contradictory behaviour of Sri Lankan political parties which is pointed out above is the best case in point.