Monday, 28 September 2015

Death Penalty or Right To Life?

Source: The Sunday Leader (27 September 2015)

With the increasing number of murders, sexual offences and drug smuggling in the nation, President Maithripala Sirisena recently spoke of re-introducing the capital punishment with the approval of parliament in a bid to eradicate these crimes.

Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe said the government was willing to implement the death penalty if it was necessary to avert the increasing trend in serious crimes in the nation and stressed the need to expedite investigations and punish offenders.

"We will try our best to prevent the increasing trend in crime and we will take steps to combat it also by implementing capital punishment," he said.

At present, there are over 1,115 inmates sentenced to death for murders and drugs smuggling detained at the Bogambara, Mahara and Welikada Prisons in Sri Lanka. The Department of Prisons confirmed that the prisoner who was sentenced to death recently was imprisoned about a month back.

He also said that most of the prisoners who were sentenced to death were murderers, adding that there are 40,000 high court cases, and therefore it is hard to keep a count on how many of them are given death sentences as sometimes it seems that almost every day the judges around the country give the verdict of death for serious crimes if the suspect is proven guilty with strong evidence. There was one even last week, he added.

However, the oldest inmate who was sentenced to death due to the commitment of murder is 84-year-old while the first prisoner on the death row has been there for the last 18 years since 1997, with the government spending Rs. 300 every day including food and clothing for the inmates.

However, the expenses of water and electricity used by them were not included in the said Rs. 300, claimed the Commissioner of Prisons (Operations) H. M. N. C.  Dhanasinghe.

There are around 600 inmates on whom the re-appealing of the cases has been cancelled due to the nature of their crimes and 400 prisoners have re-appealed against their verdicts. In the meantime, the hearings of the re-appealed cases in courts are pending and the final verdict will decide on whether to reduce the period of life in prison or to cancel the appeal depending on the judge's decision.

Commissioner of Prisons (Operations) confirmed that approximately five female and over 1,000 male inmates were sentenced to death in Sri Lanka, adding that the department awaits the President's decision to carry out the executions.

If an individual is arrested with more than four grams of drugs in his or her possession and if proven guilty, that person will be sentenced to death depending on the strong evidences.

Meanwhile, the department had already received around 15 applications for the post of hangman and the interviews of the applications will be held within three weeks.

However, responding to the questions by The Sunday Leader, the Commissioner of Prisons said that the death penalty does not apply to the criminals who commit sexual offences unless they commit murder following the abuse, but will be sentenced for 10-20 years in prison.

Meanwhile, the Director for Human Rights Watch's South Asia Meenakshi Ganguly said, "Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty because it is inherently inhumane," adding that the death sentence as a punishment should be totally abolished.

She went on to say that Sri Lanka should not engage in what might appear to be a populist idea in the country. "Surely, the government knows that there is no clear evidence that the capital punishment serves as an effective deterrence for serious crimes. Therefore the criminal justice system should be strengthened which will be more effective to prevent serious crimes in the country," she said.

She further noted that the death penalty is incompatible with human rights and human dignity.

The death penalty violates the right to life which happens to be the most basic of all human rights. It also violates the right not to be subjected to torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment. Furthermore, the death penalty emasculates human dignity which is natural to every human being.

In the meantime, many human rights activists claim that there is a risk of executing innocent people in the justice system. There have been several, and always will be, cases of executions of innocent people. "Even we have experienced one in the recent past. 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," they said.

They also claimed that the death penalty can be used in a disproportional manner against the poor, minorities and members of racial, ethnic, political and religious groups.

As the General Assembly of the United Nations recently stated that there is no conclusive evidence of the deterrent value of the death penalty (UNGA Resolution 65/206), it is significant to note that the implementation of the capital punishment in order to eradicate serious crimes in many countries is at stake as the increasing number of crimes are still on the rise.

Just because the public request the government to take away the life of a human being does not mean that it is always the right way of eradicating the crimes in future whereas it is the duty of the justice system and the judiciary officers to emphasize the unsuitability of capital punishment with human rights and human dignity, claims the human rights activists adding that it should be abolished.

Nimalka Fernando, a lawyer and a human rights activist in Sri Lanka, says that she is alarmed that our leaders are taking decisions of this nature with scant disregard to the international standards and human rights law.

"At least I expected the Yahapalanaya (Good Governance) leaders to have a better sense and wisdom when taking decisions" she added.

She went on to say that she is concerned that the President is not receiving proper guidance from the advisors and hopes the international experts around him will tell him that introducing death penalty is a violation of basic fundamental human rights. "You cannot remove the life of a person to bring justice to another. The present norm is life imprisonment and not death penalty," she said.

"It looks as if the Sri Lankan experts have to be exposed to the international standards. They have remained under Mahinda Rajapaksa so much that they cannot think straight now", she further said.

It is noteworthy, that the request from the public for the capital punishment in the country indicates the desire to be free from crime. Nevertheless, there exist more effective ways to prevent crimes, claim the Human Rights activists.

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