I’d rather be a cow in Sri Lanka

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Photo courtesy The Straits Times

What says the law? You will not kill. How does it say it? By killing! – Victor Hugo

Rizana Nafeek’s execution on Wednesday (9th January) outraged many Sri Lankans. She was convicted of murdering a baby and sentenced to death by the Dawdami High Court in Saudi Arabia. She was 17 at the time of the alleged offence.

We are outraged for many reasons. Rizana was a minor at the time of the offence. Her recruitment agent falsified her documents in order to present her as older. Her conviction was secured despite the absence of a post mortem. The police obtained her ‘confession’ under duress. She had no access to a competent translator. The case reeks of injustice on multiple levels.

Not surprisingly, many are outraged by the inhumanity of the death penalty imposed on a Sri Lankan by the Saudi authorities. Footage of a beheading purporting to be Rizana’s execution was shown on national television, invoking general revulsion amongst the public. The natural emotive reaction was, of course: how dare those barbaric Arabs kill our poor girl?

Death is an irreversible punishment, which the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) observes as ‘forever depriving an individual of the opportunity to benefit from new evidence or new laws that might warrant the reversal of a conviction, or the setting aside of a death sentence.’ This argument alone ought to make the most indomitable of pragmatists amongst us pause to think. Forget the moral incongruity that the author of Les Miserables points to.

Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan government advertised two vacancies for hangmen. Morbid enthusiasts around the island (some reports say 176) were quick to apply, and several lucky candidates were interviewed and shortlisted. While the world voted for a global moratorium on the death penalty at the UN General Assembly last December, Sri Lanka (we quietly abstained from the vote), appears to be making plans to return to the brutal practice.

Even thirty years of civil war did not persuade our bloodthirsty lot to kill off criminals officially. No, we preferred to keep things extra-judicial—where grenade clad criminals are routinely gunned down for trying to escape custody. Despite the reintroduction of death sentences in 2004 following the murder of High Court Judge Sarath Ambepitiya, those who got the axe had their sentences summarily commuted to life imprisonment. So at present, the death penalty is merely for show, each sentence a proverbial feather in the cap of the state prosecutor concerned—‘necks’, I think they call it. All of this abstention, it appears, is liable to change.

Yet there is a strong movement in Sri Lanka for the preservation of life—animal life that is. The Ministry of Buddhasasana and Religious Affairs budgeted over a 100 Million for the period 2011-2014 under the line item ‘Mathata Thitha Programme & Protection of Milking Cows’. That’s a lot of cash for cows. This fairly substantial budget coincides with a growing sentiment within the country that good human beings don’t kill animals recently venerated as sacred.

To be perfectly clear, animal cruelty is wrong and should be abhorred. We should all work our way towards vegetarianism some day. So we should perhaps commend the Kandy Municipal Council for unanimously passing a resolution last September banning the slaughter of cattle within the Kandy municipal limits. We should also commend the Bodu Bala Senā for its undying efforts to ban the slaughter of animals at religious ceremonies, and also Halal food—the relevance of which escapes the best of us. There is an interesting Bill calling for a total ban on the slaughter of cattle that has been circulating for well over four years. It has not been taken seriously yet. But cows all over the country can bet on their lives that a reintroduction of the Bill is just around the corner. Greener pastures await them; but sadly, not those several hundred inmates on death row.

The reaction to Rizana’s execution reveals that the Sri Lankan public is viscerally opposed to the death penalty. When it is in our face—when the horror of the details, and the finality in which injustice is dispensed stare directly at us—we are outraged. If anything, Rizana ought to be a poster-child for the abolition of the death penalty. Hers is the classic case alluded to by the ACLU and a poignant illustration of how potential innocents may fall victim to the death penalty. Yet this train of thought appears to elude us.

The associations that are made in the public’s mind reveal some disturbing trends. Instead of reflecting on the dangers of reintroducing the death penalty in our own country, the public’s attention has been easily channeled towards the practices of other countries—particularly Islamic countries. Capital punishment in the Arab world has been easily capitalized upon in Sri Lanka to nurture growing Muslim antipathy. Meanwhile, the movement against the slaughter of cattle—dubiously manifesting alongside protests over animal sacrifice by minority religious groups—is seldom acknowledged as a paradox. No one seems to notice the irony of bemoaning the death of an animal while remaining indifferent to the carefully calculated and premeditated killing of human beings. No one notices the hypocrisy in criticizing a foreign system for its brutality and lack of due process. The somewhat one-dimensional response to the execution reveals that we currently lack a value-laden society. We oppose a practice not because it is wrong and runs contrary to a value we wish to uphold; we oppose it because someone we dislike is doing it. Hence we oppose Rizana’s execution not because we believe in the right to life (of human beings), but because a Muslim nation is carrying it out against one of our own.

The public outcry against Saudi beheadings has, however, produced the perfect opportunity for abolitionists to seize. This opportunity stands to be lost if the hype over the execution is subsumed by petty bigotry. Rizana’s death would not be in vain if many others like her languishing in our own prisons are ultimately spared on her account. But if apathy once again prevails, it would not be too absurd to predict that we’ll be hanging them till the cows come home.