Protests, legal challenge in Sri Lanka over death penalty

The executions would be the first in the island nation since 1976
Protests, legal challenge in Sri Lanka over death penalty

Sri Lankan demonstrators hold placards against the death penalty in front of Welikade prison in Colombo on June 28. (Photo by Niranjani Roland)

Civil rights activists have protested in Sri Lanka against the president’s decision to end a moratorium on capital punishment and execute four convicted drug dealers.

Holding placards that read “Execute justice not people” and the “Death penalty kills people not crimes”, activists gathered outside Sri Lanka’s largest prison, Welikade, on June 29 to urge President Maithripala Sirisena to reverse his decision.

Sirisena said on June 26 he had signed the requisite documents to reimpose the death penalty, paving the way for the first executions in the country since 1976. 

He has defended the decision as necessary to curb a serious national drug problem that has grown to 300,000 addicts.

Civil rights lawyer Senaka Perera questioned the motive for the decision, suggesting it was an attempt to boost Sirisena’s image as a strong leader, ahead of presidential elections due to take place by year’s end.

“We thoroughly condemn the president's action. Behind these prison walls it is written ‘prisoners are humans’ but the president has taken a stand to execute them," said Perera, president of the Committee for Protecting Rights of Prisoners.

"We request the president rehabilitate the prisoners. Executions are accepted internationally only in extreme cases, but the president is going to execute these people for political benefit and to build his image.

"If the president is not going to stop this, we will have a mass protest and also take further action to bring this matter to the attention of the international community," said Perera.

Sirisena also faces legal challenges against his attempt to end the moratorium, with a petition filed in the Court of Appeal seeking an order quashing the move on human rights grounds. Sri Lanka’s top prisons official told the court during questioning on June 28 for the petition that the hangings would not take place for at least seven days.

Sirisena has said the hangings would take place “very soon” but no date has been announced. As of February, there were 48 prisoners on the nation’s so-called death row.

Two hangmen meanwhile have been recruited from more than 100 applicants to carry out the job, according to the prisons department.

Amnesty International and a number of other rights groups have criticized Sri Lanka’s intentions to return to hangings, noting that some 106 countries have already abolished the death penalty.

Athula Samarakoon, a social sciences lecturer at the Open University of Sri Lanka, said the decision was not only a threat to democracy, but would fail to deter drug dealers. He called on the government to focus more on installing law and order.

“Implementing the death penalty will not help to reduce crime rates,” Samarakoon told ucanews.com. "The government should establish law and order which we do not have at present.”

“Give people a chance to repent. This punishment has been stopped in Sri Lanka for more than 43 years and it is not good for a civilized society and for a democratic country (to reintroduce it)," he said.

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