Sirisena ignores pleas to axe death penalty

Watchdogs hound Sri Lankan president to respect convicts' right to life, as applications for job of hangman flood in
Sirisena ignores pleas to axe death penalty

Activists have put up posters in public places in cities like Colombo opposing the introduction of the death penalty in Sri Lanka, 40 years after the last state-sanctioned execution in the country. The government received about 100 job applications since it began advertising for two hangmen in February 2019. The salary is 36,310 rupees (US$200) a month. (Photo by Quintus Colombage/ucanews.com reporter)

Sri Lankan President Maithripana Sirisena believes that reinstating the death penalty is the best deterrent to the country's growing drug problem, but a priest-run center and other rehabilitation facilities in Colombo are trying to show that therapy works better.

Sirisena's sanity was questioned recently after he fired a former ally, dissolved parliament, and threw the country into chaos, but the Court of Appeal voided a petition in January seeking to have him face a panel of psychiatrists.

Regardless of the soundness of his decision-making, Sirisena said on Feb. 7 he would authorize implantation of the death penalty within two months for those convicted of serious drug offenses.

With nearly 1,300 people on death row in Sri Lanka, religious leaders have rallied against the move, especially after adverts seeking to hire two hangmen appeared in local newspapers, attracting over 100 applications.

Cannabis and heroin have become the top two narcotic scourges in the country, which authorities fear could soon become a major transit point for international traffickers.

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Basil Alwis, a local businessman and father of three, knows how drugs can ruin lives: he tried to commit suicide after his second son was arrested on a drug charge in August, with two packets of heroin in his pocket.

The younger man, whose name is being withheld, underwent therapy with the guidance of priests in the capital, but failed to be rehabilitated. The son also lost his white-collar job and faced disciplinary action.

Now Alwis and the rest of the family are concerned about what will happen to the young man as he could face the death penalty if he trips up one more time.

They do not believe it serves as an effective deterrent.

Human rights activist Niruddi Senaviratne concurs. She said there is no evidence from any country in Asia or elsewhere supporting the hypothesis that the death penalty reduces crime.

"There are serious deficiencies in our criminal justice system, including a lack of easily accessible, good-quality legal aid," she said, citing what she considers to be more pressing concerns.

"The death penalty is an irreversible form of punishment that grants no space to consider new evidence, which may emerge after a conviction is made, for example through new technology, indicating a wrongful conviction."

Sirisena reaffirmed his support for the policy on March 5, when he argued that capital punishment was necessary to "save" the younger generation.

Amnesty International disagreed. It wrote an open letter to the government urging it to choose a different path and shelve plans to execute at least 13 people for drug offenses.

The human rights organization also sought a review of the cases that had put people on death row, and asked the authorities to consider commuting their sentences to life imprisonment.

The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) joined this chorus of disapproval by requesting the death penalty be removed, on the basis that it is degrading and inhumane.

The ICJ also asked the government to sign an international covenant on civil and political rights, which would obligate it to abolish this form of punishment.

The European Union chimed in to similar effect while the Catholic Bishops' Conference said that stringent security measures would serve to better clamp down on the drug trade.

Sirisena proved stubborn, however, saying the nation's customs officials, police and coastguard would work together to eradicate drug smuggling, with the death penalty as a needed stick.

Even though, capital punishment remains on the country's statute books, no executions have taken place there since 1976.

In 2004, the government moved to reinstate executions for offenses like rape, murder, and drug trafficking, but none were carried out amid widespread opposition.

In the wake of his visit to the Philippines in January, Sirisena said he wanted to emulate President Rodrigo Duterte's tactics in dealing with drug pushers and users.

Duterte has allegedly sanctioned hundreds if not thousands of extrajudicial killings during his war on drugs.

Since 2017 he has also called to revive the death penalty in the Philippines, setting him at odds with the Church and much of the Catholic population.

Duterte has described capital punishment as the only way to instill fear in people, while Pope Francis has called it unacceptable in all circumstances.

Yet as the Sri Lanka president has found, recruiting people for the job was not as easy as the government presumed.

In 2014, a newly hired hangman resigned in shock after seeing the gallows, which came after several days of training. Three more recruits abandoned the job that same year.

However the tide may have turned recently, as the Ministry of Justice and Prison Reforms claims to have received around 100 applications for its two recent postings.

The deadline for the 36,310 rupees (US$200) a month job was Feb. 25.  

The ministry said it would not disclose the short-listed candidates or interview dates for security reasons.

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