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Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, child murders spur death penalty debate

Catholics say focus should be on rehabilitation

Niranjani Roland, Colombo

Niranjani Roland, Colombo

Published: October 09, 2015 09:31 AM GMT

Updated: October 09, 2015 10:28 PM GMT

In Sri Lanka, child murders spur death penalty debate

Sri Lankan activists light candles during a vigil in Colombo on June 1 following the gang rape and murder of a teenage girl. Recent high-profile child killings have spurred a debate over the death penalty. (Photo by Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP)

Chandrakumar Selvaraja, a father of three, wants his government to start hanging Sri Lanka's worst criminals.

"At least hang 10 people!" he shouted angrily during a recent protest in Vavuniya, a town in Sri Lanka's north. "That will be a lesson to rapists and murderers."

Selvaraja is hardly alone in his calls for Sri Lanka to enforce capital punishment. As rights groups in the international community prepared to mark the annual World Day Against the Death Penalty on Oct. 10, Sri Lanka was instead debating reinstating executions.

The issue has gained attention in recent weeks following high-profile child killings, including the abduction, rape and murder of 5-year-old Seya Sadewmi. In September, the girl was kidnapped from her home and murdered.

In the ensuing weeks, crowds in different parts of the country have staged angry demonstrations, demanding that Sri Lankan authorities implement the death penalty. This has stirred a public debate, with some sectors making emotional appeals for capital punishment, and faith groups and rights leaders coming out strongly against.

Capital punishment is legal in Sri Lanka, but it has not been enforced since 1976.

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena has promised to reintroduce the death penalty as soon as next year — if he gets approval from parliament. He has strong support on this issue from people like Selvaraja.

For Selvaraja, it was the May murder and gang rape of 18-year-old Vidya Sivaloganathan that stirred his emotions.

"Let Vidya's incident be the last event of rape and murder," he told ucanews.com in an interview.

Bringing back the death penalty, he argued, will be a deterrent to potential criminals.

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"Reintroducing hanging will stop the crime rate. Life sentences are not suitable," Selvaraja said.

 

Chandrakumar Selvaraja, second from right, demonstrates at an October protest in Vavuniya. Selvaraja is calling on Sri Lanka to reinstate the death penalty. (Photo by Kapil Bandaravaniyan)

 

Rehabilitation

Faith leaders, however, are urging restraint on what has become an emotional issue.

Father Anselm Shiran, a moral theologian based at Sacred Heart Church in Colombo Archdiocese, said a society should pursue ways to rehabilitate its criminals.

"By punishing the criminal with the death penalty, the hope of any rehabilitation is also rejected and justice must not violate human dignity," the priest said.

Instead, criminals should be offered an incentive — and help — to change their behavior, he said.

Successive popes, including Pope Francis, have called for the abolition of the death penalty.

Father Shiran said the local church can do more to spread Catholic views on capital punishment.

"Catholic faithful are not very much aware about the teachings of the Catholic Church on the death penalty," the priest said. "Therefore, they should be aware through Sunday sermons."

 

Deterrent

Civil rights activists and academics also point out that the death penalty alone will not deter crime.

Harini Amarasuriya, a social anthropologist and lecturer at the Open University of Sri Lanka, said implementing capital punishment is not a means to reduce child abuse, sexual harassment or other crimes.

"We should find out the root causes of the crimes, such as poverty, lack of education, psychological imbalances, cultural issues, and not having any room for the open, healthy discussions about sexuality, to be open-minded and openly discuss these matters," she said in an interview. "It is a very complicated sociocultural matter."

She pointed out that jurisdictions in the United States also use the death penalty — but whether or not this has had any effect on crime rates is disputed.

Sri Lanka is not the only country in the region that has undergone a public debate on the merits of capital punishment.

This year, Indonesia has carried out the death penalty on 14 people, according to Amnesty International, including the April executions of convicted Australian drug traffickers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. While the Indonesian public appears divided on the issue, authorities there have also protested when its own citizens are executed abroad.

In an Oct. 8 statement ahead of the World Day Against the Death Penalty, London-based Amnesty International criticized countries including China, Indonesia and Malaysia for carrying out executions for drug offenses.

"It's disheartening that so many countries are still clinging to the flawed idea that killing people will somehow end addiction or reduce crime," Chiara Sangiorgio, the group's death penalty expert, said in the statement.

Within Sri Lanka, the debate over the death penalty has also played out in the country's press, with prominent newspapers weighing in on the issue.

"Judicial execution can wait," The Island newspaper said in a Sept. 21 editorial.

"What needs to be done urgently is for the government to concentrate on crime prevention and making the justice dispensation system efficient."

On the other hand, Sudar Oli, a Tamil newspaper, argued that reinstating the death penalty would help address the problem of violence against women.

"The death penalty should be implemented for a particular period," it said in a Sept. 17 editorial. "If we fail to act, the number of crimes will increase. Therefore, the government should take quick action."

While President Sirisena has indicated his willingness to reintroduce the death penalty, there is nevertheless a debate at the political level, even within Srisena's coalition government.

Elected leaders debated the issue in parliament on Oct. 6, with opposing views coming to the forefront. At the moment, however, parliament has not scheduled an actual vote on the issue.

Even so, plans could already be moving forward to prepare for capital punishment's return. There are currently more than 1,100 inmates on death row, according to the commissioner general of prisons, Rohana Pushpakumara.

He told ucanews.com that authorities are in the midst of renovating gallows, and have already posted advertisements for two new government jobs.

There have been 24 applicants for the position of hangman.

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