- Does the death penalty have a place in modern society?
The subject of capital punishment is divisive, with many arguments for and against it. Yesterday (26), the Institut Français, in partnership with the Embassy of France to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, hosted the 2022 edition of “Night of Ideas” under the theme “(Re)building Together”. The topic discussed was the death penalty, with a panel of professionals advocating for the abolition of the death penalty weighing in and sharing their views.
Moderated by George Cooke, Initiator of the Awarelogue Initiative, the panel featured human rights lawyer, advocate, and former Human Rights Commissioner Ambika Satkunanathan, World Coalition Against the Death Penalty Programme Manager Bronwyn Dudley (who joined virtually), and Amnesty International Researcher Thyagi Ruwanpathirana.
The myths that surround the death penalty in Sri Lanka
First things first, the death penalty does exist in Sri Lanka in a theoretical sense; a person in Sri Lankan can be sentenced to death, and this is something that does happen. It’s not something that happens every day, but to say that death sentences are unheard of would be false.
However, Sri Lanka is known as a country that is abolitionist in practice and has not carried out an execution since 1976, because of a moratorium on executions that has been in place since that date. However, being abolitionists in practice means that we have not gone as far as abolishing the death penalty and completely wiping it from the books. In theory, executions can be brought back at any time and there was cause to worry about this possibility in 2019 when then-President Maithripala Sirisena signed four death warrants for drug-related charges, and now again in 2022, with the present Government’s efforts to aggressively fight Sri Lanka’s drug trade (the death penalty applies to those caught in possession of even a small amount of narcotics and is mandatory sentencing that can be commuted to life imprisonment at the discretion of the presiding judge).
There are many arguments used in favour of maintaining the death penalty and pushing that those sentenced to death be executed. Satkunanathan took us through the three biggest arguments used to further this agenda. These arguments are that imposing the death penalty deters others from committing that crime; imposing the death penalty will bring an end to the drug trade (this is correlated to the previous argument of the death penalty being a deterrent and ties into the fact that anyone with over 2 g of narcotics like heroin or cocaine are liable to be sentenced to death; and lastly, no one can wrongfully be sentenced to death.
Satkunanathan exposed each of these arguments as myths using statistics compiled from multiple reports that show:
- Countries that impose execution see no real reduction in crime rates.
- The “war on drugs” is one that needs to be fought on multiple fronts, and chiefly through public health strategies and stopping drugs from entering the country. (Satkunanathan also pointed out that in order to effectively stop drugs from entering the country, the Government needs to be able to access information and statistics from various countries internationally to devise appropriate strategies, and many counties are reluctant to share such information with counties that impose the death penalty for drug-related crimes, creating a catch-22 situation).
- There are many gaps in Sri Lanka’s justice system, a fact well-attested by both lawyers and judges. There are several instances where people have been wrongfully sentenced, and especially when it comes to those on death row, many of these inmates are from poor marginalised communities who cannot afford adequate legal representation in the first place, which increases their likelihood of being wrongfully sentenced or given the maximum sentence unduly.
The right to life and public perception
Ruwanpathirana shared that Amnesty International “opposes the death penalty in any instance, regardless of what the situation is, even if there is a humane way of execution because fundamentally we believe in the right to life and people’s right to live free of cruel and degrading treatment”.
Ruwanpathirana also noted that there is a perception that having the death penalty in the books will have it work as a deterrent, but the evidence does not back up this theory, adding that Amnesty International carries out an annual death penalty report and in the 2021-2022 publication, the statistics for the South Asian region for issuing death sentences were as follows: Bangladesh – 113, Afghanistan – four, Pakistan – 49, India – 77. In Sri Lanka it was 16 sentences.
The publication also provides that by the end of 2021, the number of inmates in Sri Lanka serving on death row had accumulated with over 1,000 prisoners at the time; for comparison, in Pakistan, it was 4,000 and in Bangladesh, it was around 1,800.
Much of the accumulation is owing to the mandatory death sentences that are part of our statutory law, which in turn also affects overcrowding of prisons – a whole other issue that needs to be addressed holistically from a judicial, socioeconomic, and political standpoint.
Reflecting on the data that she has had access to, Ruwanpathirana noted that much of the public did in fact support mandatory death sentences and the death penalty being issued for drug-related crimes, but again, there is no empirical evidence to support this assumption. In instances where research in this regard was carried out outside of Sri Lanka, the statistics show that the number of people recording drug-related crimes has either remained the same or gone up.
While noting that it is technically illegal as per international law to impose a death penalty for non-serious crimes such as financial crimes and in this case, drug-related charges, Ruwanpathirana stated that Sri Lankans were largely in support of capital punishment being used as punishment for drug-related crimes.
Satkunanathan and Ruwanpathirana both highlighted the fact that many of those on death row come from marginalised communities; those who don’t have access to information and experienced lawyers who can completely fight their case for them to receive the fairest sentence possible.
How can we move forward?
The panel strongly urged the gathering, and the public at large, to stand up against the death penalty. Referring to the instance in 2019, when then-President Sirisena signed the death warrants of four prisoners in a bid to resume executions – these were stayed by the Supreme Court because of the human rights petitions filed against the resumption of executions and calling for a detailed review of the prisoners’ cases before upholding said warrant – the panel noted that this process of hearing petitions is still ongoing.
The panel also called for a holistic approach to reducing crime rates, and most especially, the war on drugs looking at preventative strategies rather than punitive strategies to address crime and drug use. Shifting public awareness is also key to being able to work towards finally abolishing the death penalty, and this can only happen through open communication and education, the panel concluded.