While the sentencing of former Welikada Magazine prison superintendent Emil Ranjan Lamahewage earlier this month brought justice to those who died inside Welikada prison nine years ago, his death sentence highlights another long-standing problem in the country.
While a continuing de facto moratorium on capital punishment in Sri Lanka is effectively in place, judges continue to hand down the death penalty. This is mainly because in Sri Lanka the death penalty is a mandatory sentence for certain crimes. As a result, although no death row inmates have been executed in the past 45 years, there are currently over 1,200 death row inmates in Sri Lanka.
At first glance, the argument for the death penalty is simple. Crimes and the level of violence in Sri Lanka have undoubtedly increased. Therefore, the death penalty is considered a deterrent and, in cases of child abuse, rape and drug trafficking, a worthy form of retaliation; in the case of Lamahewage and his complicity in the deaths of 27 prisoners, it is understandable why the death penalty may have appeared as the appropriate remedy.
However, as has been covered in these pages recently, it fails to address the still-present concerns that led to the 2012 riots, while leaving many questions about the chain of command unanswered.
For the death penalty alone, there have been and always will be cases of the execution of innocent people. No matter how developed a justice system is, it will always remain vulnerable to human failure. Unlike prison sentences, the death penalty is irreversible and irreparable. Moreover, the death penalty is often used disproportionately against the poor, minorities, and members of racial, ethnic, political, and religious groups.
Sri Lanka, with its already overburdened and under-resourced justice system, would find it extremely difficult to ensure that no innocent party is sentenced to death. Such legal proceedings would also be time consuming and expensive, so not necessarily a faster path to justice.
Perhaps the most telling argument of all is that the death penalty violates the right to life, which happens to be the most fundamental of all human rights. It also violates the right not to be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Moreover, the death penalty violates human dignity, which is inherent in every human being.
The death penalty does not have the deterrent effect commonly referred to by its defenders. As the UN General Assembly has stated: “There is no conclusive evidence of the deterrent value of the death penalty (UNGA resolution 65/206).”
It should be noted that in many retentionist states, the effectiveness of the death penalty in preventing crime is being seriously questioned by an ever-increasing number of law enforcement professionals.
Public support for the death penalty does not necessarily mean that it is right to take the life of a human being by the state. There are undisputed historical precedents where gross violations of human rights have received the support of a majority of the population, but which have subsequently been vigorously condemned. It is the job of personalities and politicians to point out the incompatibility of capital punishment with human rights and human dignity.
Tougher laws should certainly be introduced for offenders, but this must be accompanied by a comprehensive overhaul of the entire legal system in Sri Lanka. The death penalty by itself and alone will do little to reduce crime in today’s environment.