Featured image by Sri Lanka Mirror

Last year, on October 2, Iran executed a 24-year-old woman, Zeinab Sekaanvand, who was a child at the time of her alleged offense. Under international law, she should have been excluded from the death penalty. She was also, like many child brides, a survivor of gender-based violence. Born into a poor and conservative family, she was married at the age of 15 to a man who had turned abusive and violent. She appealed to the authorities and her family to protect her from both her husband and her brother-in-law, whom she claimed had raped her repeatedly, but her pleas went unheard. When she was 17, her husband was found dead, and she confessed to the crime under police torture. At her trial hearing – when she was finally appointed a lawyer – she retracted her confession, but it was too late: the court sentenced her to death.

Alice Nungu, was a Malawian woman who was sentenced to death after killing her abusive husband while defending herself and her elderly mother from his drunken attack. In 2015, a court finally heard about the years of intense abuse that Alice endured before sentencing, and ordered her immediate release. She had languished on death row for over 12 years, fading from HIV, inhumane living conditions, and lack of food. Only weeks after her release, Alice died, with her mother by her side.

Though there are women in the death row in Sri Lanka, not much information is available about gender dimensions of those facing the death penalty. But international research indicates that women who are sentenced to death are subjected to multiple forms of gender bias. That women who are seen as violating entrenched gender norms are more likely to receive the death penalty and that most women are sentenced to death for the crime of murder, often in relation to the killing of family members and in a context of gender-based violence. In Jordan, for example, of 16 women on death row, all but one was convicted of killing a close family member who traditionally wields authority, creating the potential for abuse: a husband, a father, or a mother-in-law.

Two weeks ago, on June 14, in the United States of America (USA), Charles Ray Finch was exonerated of all charges, 43 years after he had been sent to the death row. Earlier this year, also in the USA, Clifford Williams Jr., was exonerated 42 years after having been sentenced to death. Since 1973, exonerations had taken more than 30 years each for ten persons. All of them have been black. Williams and Finch were the 165th and 166th persons respectively to be exonerated after being given the death penalty in the USA, over a period of 36 years, an average of more than 4 exonerations per year. The 166th came just before the 1500th execution on June 20, 2019.

Sri Lanka’s new license for Judicial Killings

Sri Lanka last’s execution was in 1976 and since then, there has been moratorium on the use of death penalty. Although death sentence remained in our laws and courts regularly imposed the death penalty, successive Presidents didn’t sign the death warrant.

But on June 26, the International day in support of Victims of Torture, media announced President Sirisena had brought back the death penalty, a cruel, inhumane and degrading punishment, breaking the 43 year long moratorium upheld by all Sri Lankan presidents. Sri Lanka, a country notorious for extra-judicial executions for last several decades, is on the verge of becoming notorious now for judicial executions.

The names of the four persons against whom the death warrant has been signed is yet to be announced. As of early this year, 1299 persons were reported to have been on the death row. All those on the death row, and all of their families, must be in agony and trauma, not knowing whether they or their loved ones are amongst the first four to be executed or when their turn might come. Media quoted Prison officials saying most on the death row were stressed, not eating and feeling faint.

Why say NO to the Death Penalty

The death penalty is an irreversible form of punishment which grants no space to consider new evidence that may emerge after a conviction is made, for example through new technology, indicating a wrongful conviction. As has been mentioned above, people wrongly convicted have been released from death row decades after they were put there as new evidence has shown they were wrongfully convicted. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka has pointed out that persons wrongly convicted had been later released from the death row or prison from countries such as USA, Canada and the United Kingdom. The Commission has pointed out a case in the USA, where a convicted man was released after 23 years in prison for several crimes, and the lead investigator and the judge later had claimed his conviction was a miscarriage of justice.

The Commission has also noted alleged prosecutorial misconduct leading to conviction of innocents in Sri Lanka. Like everywhere else, wrongful convictions are possible in Sri Lanka, especially given serious deficiencies in the criminal justice system, including a lack of easily accessible, quality, legal aid for the poor and vulnerable – during trial and appeal. Thus, it is the poor that are more likely to face wrongful convictions.

There is no evidence in Sri Lanka or any part of the world that the death penalty has prevented or reduced crimes.

It is possible and necessary to oppose the death penalty and support constructive measures to address crime, including drug related crimes. It is crucial to work towards prevention of crime, by guaranteeing all human rights for all – both civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights. If some detainees are engaged in drug-related offenses from within prison grounds, security in prisons must be strengthened, including through the use of new technology and holding prison officials accountable for allowing drugs inside prison.

International commitments and trends

Last year December, Sri Lanka was amongst the 121 countries, the largest number ever, that endorsed a United Nations General Assembly Resolution calling for a moratorium on the Death Penalty. Sri Lanka joined 120 other countries in noting that that any miscarriage of justice in the implementation of death penalty is irreversible and irreparable and that there is no conclusive evidence of the deterrent value of the death penalty. Sri Lanka also joined the collective global expression of deep concern about the continuing application of death penalty and encouraged states which had moratoriums to maintain it. Six months later, Sri Lanka now appears to be on the verge of reversing the longest moratorium, instead of progressing to abolish death penalty. Death penalty for drug related offenses also violates article 6 of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights, to which Sri Lanka is a party to and is considered to be unlawful killings under international law.

According to Amnesty International, the number of countries implementing judicial executions as well as passing death sentences is on the decline. Amnesty says there have been at least 690 executions in 20 countries in 2018, down by 31% from 2017 (at least 993 executions), representing the lowest number of executions that Amnesty International has recorded in the past decade. Amnesty had recorded at least 2,531 death sentences in 54 countries in 2018, a decrease from the total of 2,591 reported in 2017. At least 19,336 people were known to be under sentence of death globally at the end of 2018. Over 170 countries have either abolished the death penalty or taken a position in favour of ending executions by introducing moratorium in law or practice. Fewer than 40 countries continue to uphold the practice. According to the UN, as of 23rd May 2019, 87 countries had ratified 2nd Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights calling for the abolishing of the death penalty.

Religious teachings against killings

As a Catholic, a fundamental precept I believe in is “Though Shall not Kill”. Pope Francis has been forthright and taken a consistently principled position that human life is sacred and the death penalty is “an inhuman measure that humiliates human dignity, in whatever form it is carried out” and that it is “contrary to the Gospel.” However, last year, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the Catholic Archbishop of Colombo, in a statement issued in July, said that he supports the implementation of the death penalty in certain cases. He said perpetrators of gruesome crimes could be considered as having forfeited their own right to life, and whatever punishment was given by courts should be implemented. Less than two weeks after Cardinal Ranjith’s statement, the Vatican issued a letter to bishops on August 1 categorically stating that the death penalty is inadmissible and unnecessary even when used to protect the life of innocent people. The Catholic Bishops Conference of Sri Lanka followed this up with a statement of their own on August 9, 2018 that quoted extensively from the Vatican’s letter and made it clear that they unequivocally oppose the death penalty. Cardinal Ranjith had reversed his earlier position and signed up to this statement.

The first precept of Buddhism in this Buddhist majority country is to abstain from killings (Pāṇātipātā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi).

The Death Penalty – or Judicial Killings – is against Sri Lanka’s international obligations and religious and spiritual values, which uphold sacredness of life. We must oppose it, demanding in the short term to maintain the moratorium, and in the long term to abolish the death penalty from domestic laws and ratify the 2nd Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that calls for the abolition of the death penalty.

Read “The Solution to Drug Trafficking in Sri Lanka“. Also read more content around the death penalty here