Activists and religious leaders oppose the government’s decision to hang persistent offenders
Many drugs are smuggled into Sri Lanka on fishing vessels. A Sunday school teacher claims her fisherman father is innocent after drugs were found on his boat. (ucanews.com photo)
Harshi Sudarshani, a Sunday school teacher in Negombo, and her younger brother have faced strained relationships with their friends since their father was arrested on a drug charge.
The fisherman was arrested after packets of heroin were found on the boat in which he spends long periods at sea in search of tuna.
Sudarshani, who joined religious leaders on an anti-drug protest with thousands of others in Negombo in February, denies her father’s involvement in drug trafficking and blames the businessman owner of the boat.
Her family’s worries about the case increased with Sri Lanka’s announcement in July that it was introducing capital punishment for persistent drug dealers.
“My father is an innocent fisherman who used to go to church,” says Sudarshani, who is about to move house due to the social stigma of the drug case.
Sri Lanka has been on the map for years as a transit point for drugs, while concerns are growing about the use of illegal drugs, especially among children.
The European Union opposes Sri Lanka’s decision to introduce the death penalty for repeat drug dealers and warned that it could lose trade concessions that allow developing countries to pay fewer or no duties on their exports to the bloc.
Vacancies for two hangmen have been advertised amid a public outcry demanding capital punishment for sexual assaults and other serious crimes apart from drug dealing.
Civic rights activists oppose the government’s decision to hang drug offenders.
“There is no evidence in Sri Lanka or in any country that the death penalty reduces crime,” says Ruki Fernando, a member of the watchdog Collective and an adviser to Inform Human Rights Documentation Center.
“Crime can be best prevented or reduced through an economic-social-political system that ensures justice and all rights for all, coupled with an effective and independent criminal justice system and strict adherence to the rule of law.
“In Sri Lanka, given the deficiencies of the criminal justice system including the lack of easily accessible, quality legal aid, many accused, particularly from poorer economic backgrounds, do not have access to fair trials, so the possibilities of wrongful convictions are high.”
Fernando says new evidence may emerge through new technology that shows wrongful convictions, but the death penalty is irreversible.
In countries such as the United States, Canada and the U.K., people wrongly convicted have been released from death row or prison decades later, he says. In the U.S., for every nine people who have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, one has been exonerated after being proved innocent later.
The Anglican Church is opposed to the decision to hang drug dealers.
“The church cannot in any way agree with the move,” said Bishop Dhiloraj Canagasabey and Bishop Keerthi Fernando in a statement on July 18. “Sri Lanka halted judicial executions more than 40 years ago. Although several governments in the past have tried to reimpose the death penalty, wiser counsel has always prevailed.”
Capital punishment was abolished by former president S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1956 but it was reintroduced following his assassination in 1959.
The country decided to reinstate the death penalty in 2004 for cases of rape and drug trafficking but halted its implementation when international human rights organizations opposed the decision. The death penalty was last enforced in 1976.
Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission said capital punishment is a serious human rights violation.
Amnesty International said the country would damage its reputation by resuming executions after more than 40 years.
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo, last month clarified his earlier statement that was interpreted by some media as his support for the death penalty. He said the state should not bring back capital punishment but “criminal minds that sought to destroy social peace and harm hundreds” should not go unpunished.
Pope Francis has declared the death penalty wrong in all cases because it is an attack on human dignity.
Activist Fernando is clear. “The death penalty violates the right to life and is a cruel, inhuman and degrading form of punishment that must be rejected in any form, for any crime, in any circumstance,” he told ucanews.com.