SPECIAL REPORT

40 Years Without an Execution, Sri Lanka Still Heatedly Debates the Death Penalty

 
 
The wife of a prisoner on Sri Lanka’s death row, shown with her daughter, look at family photos in their Colombo home. The wife, who asked to remain anonymous, hopes her husband’s sentence will be commuted. Nirasha Piyawadani, GPJ Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka

It’s been decades since a Sri Lankan prisoner has been put to death. Sri Lankans are heatedly debating the death penalty now, even as a new committee reviews the sentences of death penalty inmates and, in some cases, commutes them.

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA — Prisoners on death row in Sri Lanka now have hope: Their death sentences may be commuted to life in prison, following a review by a state-sanctioned committee.

The death sentences of 34 prisoners were commuted in December by Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena, after the committee, which began meeting in 2014, interviewed those prisoners and reviewed reports about them, says Thushara Upuldeniya, commissioner of prisons (intelligence and security) and spokesperson for the Department of Prisons. The committee does not have a formal name.

An additional 83 prisoners had their sentences commuted in April, and 70 more prisoners had their sentences commuted in May. Those sentences were reduced to life in prison.

In Sri Lanka, death is a likely sentence for people found guilty of murder and other crimes including, more recently, drug trafficking and distribution, Upuldeniya says. Execution is carried out by hanging from the gallows, but the last execution in the island state took place in 1976.

Even though the death penalty hasn’t been implemented in decades, the issue is controversial in Sri Lanka, Upuldeniya says. Sri Lankans call for its use from time to time when there’s a sensational murder or atrocity.

Although some believe that capital punishment may minimize crime in society, it is difficult to have an impact on crime merely through punishment, without changing people’s attitudes and mindset.

Last year, protests occurred in May 2015, when people demanded, among other things, the death penalty for the person accused of raping and murdering a 17-year-old schoolgirl in the country’s Northern Province. In September, large groups of Sri Lankans took to the streets across the country, demanding the death penalty for the killer of a young girl, not yet 5 years old, who was abducted, raped and murdered.

In September, the president said he would start a discussion about enforcing the death penalty with parliamentary approval for “heinous crimes,” according to his media division.

Sri Lanka’s first known formal execution ─ a hanging ─ was carried out in 1812 by Sri Lanka’s British colonial rulers.

At the end of April, there were 1,004 prisoners sentenced to death in Sri Lanka, says Upuldeniya. Twenty-eight of those are women. The total prison population is around 16,000.

Those sentenced to death are mainly housed in three prisons, with the largest number ─ 625 ─ held at Welikada Prison in Colombo.

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Inmates, like the man pictured here, clean the entrance to Welikada Prison. The decorations shown were for Vesak Poya day, a Buddhist cultural festival during which families of prisoners were allowed to visit.

Nirasha Piyawadani, GPJ Sri Lanka 

There are gallows at two prisons in the country: Welikada and Bogambara Prison in Kandy. They are maintained and kept ready, and the prison system is poised to carry out an execution whenever a presidential order is received, Upuldeniya says.

Upuldeniya says the commutation of a death sentence means that an inmate can join the general prison population and are able to participate in rehabilitation activities and spend more time outdoors.

They can also be rewarded for good behavior, with benefits that can include visits to family for special occasions under police guard.

“Although some believe that capital punishment may minimize crime in society, it is difficult to have an impact on crime merely through punishment, without changing people’s attitudes and mindset,” Upuldeniya says.

GPJ’s Nirasha Piyawadani interviewed people involved with the issue of the death penalty in Sri Lanka. These are their stories.

The Human Rights Commissioner

Having the death penalty as an option opens up the possibility that an innocent person could die, says Saliya Pieris, one of five commissioners who form the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, an independent commission that has appealed to the Sri Lankan government on many occasions to abolish the death penalty.

And even if the person who dies is guilty, he says, the outcome isn’t good.

“The death penalty never equals justice,” he says.

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The prison cells shown here house prisoners who are on death row. All male death row prisoners at Welikada Prison live in a building called the “Chapel,” which also contains the gallows used when death sentences are carried out.

Nirasha Piyawadani, GPJ Sri Lanka 

 

Pieris, a lawyer, notes that Sri Lanka accepts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which protects the right to life of all individuals.

The abolition of capital punishment is a sign of civilized thinking, he says.

“Capital punishment cannot be endorsed from the point of view of human rights,” Pieris says.

False and distorted witness statements in criminal proceedings are commonplace in Sri Lanka, he says. Some witnesses point to family members of the accused as involved in the crime, others give false evidence out of a sense of loyalty to the victim, he says.

“These kinds of human errors may occur in identifying people, who end up being wrongly accused,” Pieris says.

Crime investigation in Sri Lanka is also weak, Pieris says.

“Sri Lanka lacks facilities for scientific methods like fingerprint identification and DNA tests,” he says. “Sri Lanka Police is not clever in many instances in verifying the facts revealed by the accused and the accused’s witnesses.”

Some argue that carrying out the death penalty in Sri Lanka will discourage crime, but Pieris disputes this.

“But the evidence from around the world does not prove that capital punishment has discouraged criminals and reduced crime,” he says.

In Sri Lanka, the death sentence is read out by the judge in a dramatic manner, which causes the accused and his family immense mental anguish, says Pieris, who has witnessed sentencings on several occasions.

“All electricity to the courtroom is cut off, to darken the room, and everyone in the courtroom has to stand as the judge reads out the verdict ─ ‘hanging by the neck until dead’ ─ which are ominous words, read out slowly, and every word falls in pin-drop silence,” Pieris says.

The judge then signs the verdict paper and breaks the tip of the pen so that it cannot be used again. The breaking of the pen signals the end of the life of the condemned prisoner, Pieris says. People, including seasoned lawyers, often break down in tears.

“The death penalty is irrevocable,” Pieris says. “An oppressed man can be the victim of a wrong, illogical and subjective judgment delivered to appease ordinary people. Innocent men and women may pay with their lives.”

The Prisoner and His Wife  

The wife of a prisoner on death row says she’d be able to wait for her husband’s freedom if she knew when that would come. 

“But we are going crazy when we have to wait without knowing a date he will be released,” she says.

Her husband was convicted of murder over a family dispute and sentenced to death in 2014. The crime had been committed many years earlier, even before they were married, she says. The police investigation and the legal proceedings dragged on for almost two decades before a verdict was reached and several people, including her husband, were sentenced to death.

“The man I killed was a crime lord, a man who sold drugs and harassed many women in our neighborhood,” said the prisoner in a phone interview, while his wife spoke simultaneously in-person with GPJ. “I accept that killing him was not the right thing to do, no matter who he was.”

The prisoner, whom GPJ is not naming because Sri Lankan prison officials did not approve his speaking to the media, had an otherwise clean record, his wife and neighbors say. He held a steady job and had built a multistoried house for his wife and children.

The family was respected in their Colombo neighborhood.

“My husband never expected the death sentence,” the woman says.

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Prisoners clean up the prison kitchen after cooking a meal at Welikada Prison.

Nirasha Piyawadani, GPJ Sri Lanka 

 

Even though she takes comfort in knowing the sentence will not be carried out, it is a heavy burden, she says. The prisoner and his family are appealing the verdict with hope that the sentence will be commuted to life, or even that he will be fully pardoned.

“My children are still young,” the prisoner says. “I am appealing the sentence now because if I am to be released I want to be able to do it while I can watch them grow up. What is the use of being released after a lifetime has passed?”

He fears that his children will forget him, or worse, reject him.

“The longer I stay here, without any plans of being released, the more chance there is that my children will look at me like I am a thug, a felon,” the prisoner says.

The family sold its house to pay legal fees, and now lives in a small home.

“I don’t care about the economic problems, I have courage to face them,” the wife says. “But my young girls faced big troubles because they lost their father’s care.”

Her daughters have been sexually assaulted, and even though the perpetrators have been caught, she continues to fear for their safety, the woman says. She is in effect a single mother, so she and her children are targets for such attacks.

The prisoner says a date for his appeal hearing has been fixed for sometime in 2016.

His wife has pinned all her hopes on this hearing. She visits temples and shrines and carries out ritual offerings to gain favor with the gods, she says.

“We are hopeful that he will be acquitted or at least pardoned for life,” she says.

The Social Activist

The death penalty is a deterrent to crime, says Jayantha Wijesinghe, a social activist who has joined campaigns calling for the enactment of the death penalty.

“Today, the voice against capital punishment is too loud,” Wijesinghe says. “These voices are drowning out the voices of victims that are seeking justice.”

Many who call for the abolition of the death penalty do so because they fear being branded as savages or uncivilized people if they seek capital punishment, Wijesinghe says.

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The head jailor sits in his office in the Chapel building, which houses death row inmates at Welikada Prison.

Nirasha Piyawadani, GPJ Sri Lanka 

Opponents of the death penalty are out of touch with reality, he says.

“The reality is that the maximum punishment, which is the death penalty, compels a person to think a thousand times before committing a crime,” he says. “Any animal in this world loves its life. A person is not compelled to commit a crime if it brings death to him.”

But to be effective, the punishment has to be implemented, Wijesinghe says. It’s not enough to merely threaten it or have it in writing.

Society needs to take action to reduce crime, especially heinous crimes, he says. Sri Lankan society needs to take action against crime rather than complain that it’s increasing, he says.

“Acting is more important than complaining,” he says.

The Prison Assistant Superintendent

Prisoners who arrive after being sentenced to death go through a period of shock, says Sujeewa Wijesekara, an assistant superintendent of prisons, one of the senior officials supervising the Welikada Prison.

They live with mental stress, he says, but seeing that hasn’t changed his belief that the death penalty is necessary.

“The pain I would feel if my daughter is raped and killed is common to other people too,” he says. “Various human rights organizations and numerous NGOs look into the human rights of the prisoners and speak about their rights. But no one speaks about the injustice and damage caused to the victim.”

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Sujeewa Wijesekara, an Assistant Superintendent of Prisons, is one of the senior officials supervising the Welikada Prison.

Nirasha Piyawadani, GPJ Sri Lanka 

 

Wijesekara was assigned 10 years ago to Welikada Prison. The prison is Sri Lanka’s first and largest, with more than 3,400 inmates as of April.

Of those, 625 prisoners were sentenced to death, including 15 women. More than half of those were appealing their sentences. Prisoners aren’t considered condemned until their appeals process is complete, Wijesekara says.

Condemned male prisoners are held in a building named “The Chapel.” Those under appeal are held in a separate area of the prison and mingle, in the segregated male and female sections of the prison, with the general population.

“From the perspective of the prisoner, his civil rights are suspended when he is brought here,” Wijesekara says. “But we are committed to look after their basic needs from the time they are brought here.”

Wijesekara says condemned prisoners open up to the prison officers about their personal stories. In many instances, he says, they reveal that they have admitted to a crime committed by another family member, in order to spare them.

“Brothers have come forward to save brothers, or the father has taken the responsibility on behalf of a son, or the husband has accepted the crime committed by his wife,” Wijesekara says. “But the punishment is based on the evidence heard in the case.”

Since there has been a crime, there has to be justice, he says.

“I never say the prisoners are innocent or it is wrong to condemn them,” Wijesekara says. “In the same measure, we have no hatred towards any of the criminals who are jailed here. Our duty is implementing the law.”

 

Ajith Perakum Jayasinghe, GPJ, translated this article from Sinhala.