Amid growing calls and even a private member’s motion in Parliament for the reimplementation of the death penalty in the aftermath of the brutal rape and killing of a five-year-old girl in Kotadeniyawa, we mark today the International Day against the Death Penalty.
In these modern and hopefully enlightened times, the death penalty is a complex issue with religious, moral and emotional aspects with lots of grey areas.
Issuing a statement to mark the day, the European Union’s delegation in Sri Lanka has quoted Mahatma Gandhi’s famous warning that the reaction of an eye for an eye would make the whole world blind. The EU says it believes that the death penalty is a cruel and ineffective punishment and therefore, it needs to be opposed in all circumstances. The death penalty represents an unacceptable denial of human dignity and violates the right to life universally affirmed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and reaffirmed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Its worldwide abolition is a priority, EU says. So far, 101 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes.
The EU has welcomed the announcement by Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapaksha that Sri Lanka would vote in favour of the United Nations General Assembly resolution on a moratorium on the Death Penalty. Sri Lanka currently has more than 400 prisoners under sentence of death. The EU has called on Sri Lankans to make our voices heard and be a part of the solution and not part of the problem. Last year, at least 22 countries around the world carried out executions and at least 2,466 people were sentenced to death – an increase of 28%, the EU says, pointing out that death penalty is irreversible. “Mistaken identity and wrongful convictions do happen. Many death sentences are issued after confessions obtained by torture. Innocent people die. You are more likely to be sentenced to death if you are poor or belong to an ethnic or religious minority,” the EU adds.
Responding to a massive, if not unprecedented, national outcry over the rape and murder of the girl-child in Kotadeniyawa last month, President Maithripala Sirisena said that though he had the power to order the reimplementation of the death penalty, especially for brutal crimes against children, he would seek guidance from Parliament where there were 225 representatives of the people. When Parliament met last month, the young and outspoken lawyer Parliamentarian Hirunika Premachandra introduced a motion for the implementation of the death penalty for those found guilty of raping and killing children. She introduced a motion on behalf of Deputy Minister Ranjan Ramanayake who represents the Gampaha District and thereby Kotadeniyawa which is in the Divulapitiya electorate.
However, in Parliament this week Justice Minister Rajapaksha indicated that the National Government, working on yahapalanaya or maithripalanaya principles, was not likely to re-implement the death penalty which has a long history in Sri Lanka. The British, who ruled Sri Lanka from 1815 to 1948, restricted the death penalty to the crimes of murder, and waging war against the King or Queen. After independence, Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike abolished capital punishment in 1956. However, in a mysterious twist of fate, Mr. Bandaranaike himself was assassinated on September 26, 1959 and the death penalty was reintroduced with his assassin being hanged. When opposition to the death penalty began to grow again, the United National Party Government, under President J. R. Jayawardene, changed the capital punishment clause in the 1978 Constitution. Under the new arrangement, death sentences could only be carried out if authorised by the trial judge, the Attorney General and the minister of Justice. If there was no agreement, the sentence was to be commuted to life imprisonment. The sentence must also to be ratified by the President. This clause effectively ended executions.
In line with religious and moral values, the Buddha Dhamma with its philosophy of making all beings happy is clearly not in favour of killing. We see this powerfully in the well-known Angulimala story where Gautama the Buddha, long before Western Civilisations, effectively applied the principles of restorative justice instead of retributive justice. It made history. Likewise, Pope Francis, in a historic address to a joint session of the United States Congress, called on the world’s most powerful country to abolish the death penalty. History is full of examples of where sinners or killers, transformed by the amazing grace of love and mercy, have become arahats or saints.