- Thyagi Ruwanpathirana on Sri Lanka’s death sentences
The subject of capital punishment is divisive, with many arguments for and against it. Earlier this week the Institut Francais, 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.
Brunch reached out to Thyagi Ruwanpathirana to talk about where Sri Lanka stands in relation to the death penalty, what the conversations around the death penalty and its abolition are, and how Sri Lanka and its people relate to such motions of activism when it comes to human rights matters of this nature.
Death penalty: Where does Sri Lanka stand?
“Amnesty’s stance on the death penalty is that, as an organisation, we oppose the death penalty in any instance, regardless of what the situation is, even if there is a humane way of execution,” Thyagi asserted, adding: “Because fundamentally we believe in right to life and people’s right to live free of cruel and degrading treatment.”
Thyagi also shared that in relation to the death penalty, Sri Lanka is known as a country that is abolitionist in practice and has not carried out an execution since 1976. However, being abolitionist in practice is something that can change 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).
Noting that while we are abolitionists in practice, it is unfortunate that we have not gone as far as abolishing the death penalty and completely wiping it from the books, Thyagi said: “There have been private bills presented to the Parliament, but as is the case with private member bills, they haven’t received the same traction as a government party bringing it.”
“There is a perception that having it in the books will have it work as a deterrent although there is no evidence of that,” Thyagi shared, 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 – 4, 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
Public perception of the death penalty
Reflecting on the data that she has had access to, Thyagi noted that much of the public did in fact support mandatory death sentences and the death penalty being issued for drug-related crimes.
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, Thyagi stated that Sri Lankans were largely in support of capital punishment being used as punishment for drug-related crimes.
“The older generation seems to think that with regard to drug-related crimes, the sentence is a deterrent, but there are no empirical figures that prove this. In instances where the research 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. Globally it is not something that can be proven as having an actual deterring effect,” Thyagi said, speaking of countries which have continued imposing the death penalty and carrying out executions.
Sri Lanka’s relationship with activism
Since World War II, significant efforts and progress at international, regional, and national levels have been made towards ending capital punishment or imposing a moratorium on its implementation. Sri Lanka’s response to international efforts, especially the efforts of non-governmental organisations when it comes to matters concerning human rights, has been unpleasant, to say the least.
Speaking of how Sri Lankans respond to activism and the concern they have for human rights matters affecting the population, Thyagi said it had a lot to do with mass messaging, “because during the war and post-war, anyone who proposed an alternative narrative to what the Government was saying was labelled as a traitor or LTTE sympathiser without any factual evidence”.
Thyagi also noted that this was, however “the usual” and most governments accused of serious human rights violations attempted to villainise NGOs as a standard comeback to being held accountable.
“It is just convenient to paint us as villainous organisations,” Thyagi explained, adding that in the case of Amnesty International, it is important to note that, unlike some organisations which are donor-driven, Amnesty International is run by the contributions of members around the world.
“Unlike in the case of other donors, they can’t contribute saying ‘you have to work on this matter’ and the money is given to each country’s team which decides where the money actually goes. It is governed via a very independent structure unlike in other organisations,” she said.
We are all activists
Finally, Thyagi noted that having gotten into this line of work due to having seen for herself the disparities on what is being fronted by governments and the true realities on the ground, she felt lucky to be able to work towards something she cared deeply about.
She said that while not all of us speak in “human rights language” when we raise our voice to express our thoughts about injustices and challenges, we are often talking about human rights matters and added that it was important that we continued to do so, to keep holding governments accountable.
“It is a matter of keeping governments in check,” she said. “Governments in power should be looking after the welfare of the people; they are the same people who elect them into power.”