By S.S. Selvanayagam
President Maithripala Sirisena’s decision to resume judicial hangings in Sri Lanka after 43 years has continued to run into a storm of opposition, as a spate of petitioners filed fundamental rights cases in the Supreme Court yesterday, seeking to stay the executions.
Four prisoners condemned to death are among those who have petitioned the highest court of the land against the resumption of hangings.
Other petitioners include an array of religious leaders, including the former Bishop of Colombo Reverend Duleep De Chickera and Ven. Galkande Dhammaloka, a Buddhist monk well known for his moderate positions. Academics Professor Carmena Guneratne and Dr. Kalana Senaratne also filed fundamental rights petitions challenging the President’s decision to hang drug convicts. The Centre for Policy Alternatives and its Executive Director Paikiyasothy Saravanamuttu also filed a separate fundamental rights petition, challenging the presidential decision to resume executions in Sri Lanka. The execution of the death sentences on any prisoner would amount to torture, cruel and inhuman treatment and punishment, the petitioners told the Court.
The applicants are seeking an interim order from the Supreme Court preventing executions until the applications are heard and determined with finality.
According to several of the petitions, the Government has not yet changed its official policy of opposition to the death penalty, and in the circumstances, the President has no power to order the imposition of death on any prisoner.
Despite the fact that the Government of Sri Lanka has not changed its policy of opposition to the death penalty, several functionaries of the Government since 2018 leaned towards the apparent reimplementation of the death penalty, the petitioners charge.
“The implementation of the death penalty exacerbates the colossal cost of miscarriages of justice, in that the damage done is irreparable,” the petitioners stated.
The petitioners pleaded that the Leader of the Opposition as well as the Leader of the Tamil National Alliance and the Leader of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna were all opposed to the re-imposition of the death penalty.
“Sri Lanka is one of the very few countries in which the major religions of the world namely Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity are practiced and all four of the said major religions recognise the right to life,” they highlight.
From 1976 onwards it was the policy of successive governments of Sri Lanka not to impose the death penalty and there is no justification whatsoever to the carrying it out, they insist.
On the basis of information, the petitioners claimed that it was to be prisoners convicted of drug related offences who would be executed by presidential warrant.
The fundamental rights applications were filed a day ahead of today’s preliminary hearing of a writ application in the Court of Appeal, also seeking to quash moves by the President to resume executions.
Last week, when the two writ applications came up in the Court of Appeal, President of the Court Yasantha Kodagoda PC obtained an undertaking from the Prisons Commissioner General that there would be no hangings until Tuesday’s hearing.
President Sirisena yesterday hit back against the onslaught of local and international criticism, even claiming that the EU statement urging Sri Lanka to reconsider resuming hangings as a threat against the country’s sovereignty by a foreign power.
All over the city of Colombo, posters have been put up, featuring a hangman’s noose followed by the first Buddhist precept: “You shall not take life.”
President Sirisena is also facing political opposition, with the United National Party issuing a statement last week that it was opposed to the death penalty. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who leads the Joint Opposition caucus in Parliament also told the media that he was opposed to resuming executions, adding that “this was not the right time” to end the moratorium on judicial killings. The JVP and the Tamil National Alliance do not favour resuming executions.
An increasingly incensed and isolated President Sirisena is accusing those opposing the death penalty of being in league with drug-lords. Yesterday, he said the Easter Sunday attackers were found to have been linked to drug traffickers. However, law enforcement authorities investigating the attacks are yet to publicise evidence in this regard, or a related line of inquiry into the suicide bombings.
In statements made yesterday, President Sirisena also continued to hail the war on drugs in the Philippines, which UN experts claim have resulted in a “staggering” number of extra-judicial killings. “I will not follow the Philippines system, but I would have if I could,” President Sirisena said at an event at the Sugathadasa Stadium to mark the end of National Drug Prevention week.
Last Wednesday (26 June), President Sirisena told the media that he had signed the death warrants of four prisoners condemned to death and that the executions would take place within a fortnight.
Earlier this week the President said he had rejected an appeal from UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to reconsider his decision to resume executions.
Rights groups have widely condemned the decision to resume hangings in Sri Lanka and warn of “devastating” consequences for the country’s international reputation in the event the executions go ahead.
In its statement after filing a fundamental rights application seeking to stay the executions, the Centre for Policy Alternatives noted that it has long been recognised that hanging by death is a cruel and inhuman form of punishment, not befitting a multi-religious and civilised society. “Though convicts have been sentenced to death, the long-recognised practice in Sri Lanka for over 43 years has been that they were not executed,” the CPA statement noted.
“At a time when other countries have come to the realisation that their drug control policies are in need of reform, and are taking steps to reduce the use of the death penalty, Sri Lanka is bucking the trend,” said South Asia Director at Amnesty International Biraj Patnaik.
South Asia Director for the New York based Human Rights Watch, said the death penalty was “inherently cruel”. “
“Sri Lanka with a 43-year moratorium was an example to others,” Ganguly said, “it is unfortunate that even as other nations are committing to abolish the practice, the Sri Lankan Government has chosen to be regressive”.
Former President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka President’s Counsel U.R. de Silva said the President’s conduct was “unprecedented”. “This is not going to curtail drugs in Sri Lanka, this is playing to the masses,” the former BASL Chief said.
De Silva PC urged the President to go into the prisons and watch how a person marked for execution suffers during their final hours. The President has not made it clear how these four people chosen for hanging have been selected out of all those on death row, the former BASL president said. “There are a number of cases where convictions and death sentences have been overturned by the Court of Appeal after 10 or 12 years. What if a person does not have the capacity to appeal?” he added.