Sri Lanka will bring back capital punishment and start hanging convicted drug offenders within the next three months, ending a 43-year moratorium on executions as part of a crackdown inspired by the Philippines’ brutal war on drugs.
President Maithripala Sirisena, who faces a tough re-election campaign in 2020, and a deeply divided parliament over replacing PM Ranil Wickremesinghe with Mahinda Rajapaksa last October, addressed his MPs on Wednesday, vowing to tighten laws to curb narcotics-related crime in the island nation to “make a spiritual society.”
Sirisena had flagged the possible return of the death penalty for drug dealers for the first time last July. He told the government, which earlier had unanimously backed the reinstatement of capital punishment, that he “was ready to sign the death warrants.”
“I hope to carry out the first hanging within a month or two,” he said this week. “I appeal to human rights
As of 2015, there are 1,116 convicts on death row. Around 20 people with convictions related to drugs are thought to be in line for execution with eight of those cases under appeal.
On Tuesday, Sri Lanka’s Justice Minister Thalatha Athukorale said administrative procedures for the execution of five drug convicts had been completed and Sirisena now only had to sign the death warrants.
Replicating Duterte’s campaign
This announcement arrives just weeks after his visit to the Philippines last month, where Sirisena said he wanted to “replicate the success” of Rodrigo Duterte’s ruthless approach to tackling illegal drug use, which he called “an example to the world.”
Officially, at least 4,999 drug dealers have been killed by the police during anti-drug operations in Philippines since 2016, when Duterte came to office and issued “shoot to kill” orders, although the country technically does not have a death penalty system. Human rights advocates and an opposition senator have pegged the death toll in the government’s war on drugs above 20,000.
Human rights watchdogs including the UN Human Rights Council have been increasingly critical of Duterte’s tactics. While they have condemned him for executing thousands of people involved in drug trade, none have been successful in reining him in so far.
“Even though I have not implemented some of the decisions of President Duterte, I will not bow to international non-governmental (rights) organisations and change my decision on death penalty for drug offences,” Sirisena said last month, praising the “decisive action” of the Philippine president who has offered anti-narcotics help to Sri Lanka.
History of capital punishment in Sri Lanka
There have been no executions in Sri Lanka since 1976, although criminals are regularly handed down death sentences by the High and Supreme Courts for murder, rape, and drug trafficking convictions, but, until now, their punishments have been commuted to life imprisonment.
The British had first restricted the scope of death penalties after
Properly reinstating the death penalty has been a part of Sri Lanka’s political discourse and policy agenda ever since the 26-year-long civil war ended in 2009, which coincided with a sharp rise in child abuse, rape, murder, and drug trafficking, especially after a few high-profile cases.
Sirisena on Wednesday set the first timeline for the executions in 43 years.
How severe is the drug problem in Sri Lanka?
During his meeting with the Philippine president last month, Sirisena told Duterte, “Drug menace is rampant in my country and I feel that we should follow your footsteps to control this hazard.”
An elite police task force set up to fight Tamil militancy in the 1980s was brought under presidential control during Sri Lanka’s leadership crisis last November and given a mandate to tackle the narcotics trade.
History of drug abuse (1984-2018)
According to a study published in 1988 in Forensic Science International, cannabis, hashish and opium were generally abused in Sri Lanka in the late ’70s with Colombo as the hub, before heroin took over as the most widely abused drug due to the influx of tourists, and separatist terrorists (LTTE) who engaged in drug trafficking to afford arms and ammunition.
The heroin epidemic of the 80’s became a ‘novel drug problem’ for the political and religious authorities to tackle, demanding state intervention and tough law enforcement to frame legitimate responses and foster ‘moral and upright behaviour’, especially after Interpol listed Sri Lanka as a transit country for the movement of heroin from India and Pakistan into Europe.
According to the data and incidents reported in 2016, Western province shows a higher tendency for use of psychotropic substances and prescribed drug abuse. The most
Gaps in narcotics legislation
In 1984, during the parliamentary debate on the Poisons Opium and Dangerous Drugs Ordinance of 1929 Amendment Bill, exiled PM and then education minister Wickremesinghe had said, “Some may think that the death penalty is too harsh a penalty. I do not think so. Many countries have come to the stage where they accept the death penalty.”
His statements came at a time when the drug crisis had entered Sri Lankan schools and colleges, posing a danger to the nation’s assets and overall socio-economic development. Another important development that took place at the time was that most Asia-Pacific countries, including Malaysia, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, and Indonesia introduced the death penalty for drug-related
Sri Lanka too reinstated the death sentence for drug-related
Out of the total prison population in the country, nearly 45% were admitted for narcotic-related
Existing legislation on drugs either sentences a person to death or life imprisonment, for possessing three grams of morphine, or two grams of cocaine or two grams of heroin (for personal use). There is little demarcation between drug users, street-level dealers
Sri Lanka also passed the Drug Dependent Persons’ Treatment and Rehabilitation Act No 54 in 2007, but its impact on alleviating addiction over the last 11 years has not been studied. The reported number of clients treated for drug abuse island-wide was 2355 in 2016, with 35% of them from the treatment
Addressing drug menace as public health problem
Majority of drug users languishing in prison are from lower socio-economic backgrounds who are in dire need of treatment and rehabilitation. International evidence and the UNODC suggest that voluntary community-based treatment programmes produce better outcomes than coerced or compulsory treatment in prison.
The evidence of the steady rise in drug seizures, arrests, drug-related prison admissions, drug use, drug-related harm
Rather than drawing from the Philippines, Sri Lanka could follow in the footsteps of its other Asian
There are other policy lessons that can be learned from countries such as Switzerland, Portugal, U.K, Australia and the Netherlands.
What about India? Where do we stand on capital punishment?
Not too high on the scale of contemporary standards of decency, it seems.
Indian trial courts, according to a study by the National Law University, Delhi, handed out the highest number of death penalties since 2000, 162 to be precise.
This increase is possibly owing to the amendment extending capital punishment to those convicted of sexual assault against minors below 12 years of age. Prior to this, death sentences were only meted out to those convicted of homicidal crimes.
But in the wake of the outrage following the horrific Kathua and Unnao rapes last year, the Indian Penal Code was amended to incorporate such gender crimes. Madhya Pradesh claimed most of the death penalties awarded in 2018 (7 of the state’s 22 verdicts which ended in death sentences involved rape of a minor below 12). The number also rose significantly in Karnataka, Maharashtra
Capital punishment, already a subject of controversial debate, suffers a greater blow due to such schemes as the MP government’s rewarding public prosecutors who hand out the death penalty (100 to 200 points for maximum punishment at lower courts, 500 for a life sentence and 1,000 for obtaining a death sentence).
According to Indian Express,
The Indian Supreme Court, however, has raised questions over the purpose and practice of
The case against d
While certain crimes, by the nature of their egregious brutality, justifiably incite demands for retributive justice, the death penalty ultimately models the very
Incarceration has a better chance of achieving both, noted the Supreme Court of Connecticut while abolishing death penalties in 2015. “Life imprisonment without the possibility of release is an adequate and sufficient penalty even for the most horrific of crimes,” it said.
Another undeniable fact that remains largely unaddressed is how the death penalty has for centuries been imposed disproportionately on those whom society has marginalized socially, politically, and economically, and how it has been
By choosing to enact the most extreme punitive option to solve a socio-economic crisis, Sirisena’s response to Sri Lanka’s drug epidemic exemplifies both.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.