By Niresh Eliatamby –
Terrorists and Murderers rejoice! Maithripala Sirisena may have saved the day for you!
The next time that Sri Lanka asks the European Union, UK, Canada or Australia to arrest and extradite a suspect wanted for terrorism, murder, drug trafficking, etc., we are quite likely to be firmly told ‘No!”.
Around the world, most countries that have abolished the death penalty have implemented policies that they will not extradite a suspect of a capital crime (a crime liable for the death penalty) to a country that practices the death penalty. With President Sirisena announcing that he has signed the death warrants of four persons and that their executions will be carried out shortly, Sri Lanka has stepped from the ranks of countries that do not practice capital punishment, to the ranks of those that are willing to execute our fellow human beings.
It may now also become possible for a Sri Lankan terrorist or murderer to simply catch a flight to Europe or Australia and be safe for the rest of his life, because those countries will not send him or her back to a country that practices the death penalty. Such may be the consequences of the President’s thoughtless political ploy.
Extradition of a suspect from one country to another is carried out under bilateral extradition treaties. A global research organisation on capital punishment, capitalpunishmentincontext.org, notes that “Countries that have abandoned the practice of the death penalty usually will not permit an alleged criminal to be extradited to countries that still practice the death penalty unless they are assured that the defendant will not face this punishment. For example, the countries of the European Union will not extradite to the United States a person charged with a capital offense without assurances that the death penalty will not be sought.”
Worldwide, it become progressively more accepted that the use of capital punishment is a barbaric method that has been scientifically proven to serve no deterrent purpose for future crimes. Of the world’s 198 countries, a remarkably high number of 106 have legally abolished the death penalty. Another 28 have it in the law books but do not practice it (as has been the case in Sri Lanka since 1976). Another eight nations have capital punishment only for extraordinary crimes such as war crimes, and not for common crimes. Thus, a total of 142 nations have turned their backs on the death penalty. These include the entire European Union of 28 countries (including the UK), Canada, Australia, Brazil, New Zealand and South Africa.
Only 56 countries actively practice capital punishment, most of them Islamic countries, with the notable addition of China, India, the United States, South Korea and Japan. In the United States, 21 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia have banned capital punishment.
However, in most of the countries that practice capital punishment, there are very few actual executions, some as few as one or two per year. In fact, only about a dozen countries executed over 10 people in 2016. The glaring exceptions were China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan and Egypt. China is believed to execute more people every year than the rest of the world combined.
Quite apart from its lack of effectiveness as a deterrent to criminal behavior, studies have proven beyond doubt that the death penalty worldwide is used disproportionately on people of lower social class, as well as ethnic minorities that are discriminated against by government authorities.
At present, more than 1,200 convicted persons are on death row in Sri Lanka. The death penalty is the punishment for a significantly large number of crimes in Sri Lanka ranging from treason to murder, drug trafficking and the use of firearms in certain crimes. Certain military offenses are also punishable by the death penalty.
In Sri Lanka in 1956, Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike in practice abolished the death penalty. However, with his assassination in 1959, the gallows returned and the monk who assassinated him, Talduwe Somarama, was executed. The death penalty continued in use and the last execution was on 23rd June 1976. The 1978 constitution effectively introduced safeguards that made it extremely difficult to carry out an execution, requiring the President, Minister of Justice, Attorney General, and the judges who heard the case in the High Court, Appeal Court and Supreme Court to all decide on execution. If not, death sentences were automatically commuted.
However, following the murder of High Court Judge Sarath Ambepitiya in 2004, President Chandrika Kumaratunga heeded calls for the reintroduction of the death penalty by reinstating capital punishment. However, she did not send a single person to the gallows. Neither did her successor Mahinda Rajapaksa.
*Niresh Eliatamby was for many years an investigative journalist, who also spent nearly two decades covering Sri Lanka’s civil war