Capital punishment, the remedy | Sunday Observer
Halting the escalating crime rate

Capital punishment, the remedy

13 November, 2022

The reimplementation of the capital punishment had been discussed, debated ad argued by various interested and relevant parties sometime ago due to the increasing crime rate in the country. However, it is doubtful whether they arrived at a concrete solution with regard to the strict implementation of the capital punishment.

The recent spate of killings reported in the country, especially in the Western Province and the South requires the immediate attention of the law makers as the public believe that the reintroduction and implementation of the capital punishment is the one and only effective answer to reduce the rapidly increasing heinous crimes in the country.

According to police statistics most of these crimes and multiple murders have been committed by rival crime gangs involved in the drug business.

These killings are not going to stop easily as every group of these gangsters are trying to supersede the other group. During the latter part of the Yahapalanaya Government President Maithripala Sirisena also endorsed the implementation of the capital punishment on a few convicts who were sentenced to hanging by the court but it was not carried out due to the pressure exerted by his own Cabinet colleagues.

Sri Lanka, with a recorded history of over 2500 years had been ruled by a large number of kings, a few queens, chieftains and area leaders before it became a colony of the British Empire in 1815.

From those days some form of judicial administration was practised in the country and the king, chieftain or the area leader had the final authority in all administrative functions of the country, province or the area.

Wrongdoers or the criminals were summoned before the king, questioned, cross-examined and warned or reprimanded. The verdict was meted out then and there based on the seriousness of the crimes committed. No room was left for the suspect to defend himself or challenge the judgement delivered by the authority. It is said that sometimes innocent parties had been victimised by some of the verdicts given by the kings. At the same time there had been instances whenculprits escaped punishments deceiving the kings through their crafty talk and shrewd demeanour. Even during these ancient days punishments meted out were different from offence to offence and crime to crime. However, the verdict was vested in the hands of the king.

The death sentence was the punishment for all grave crimes committed by the countrymen and no mercy was shown by the kings on anybody who was found guilty and the death sentence was passed instantly.

Death sentence

The modus operandi of meting out capital punishment decided by the kings were beheading, impaling, stoning to death, trampling by elephants and burning to death. Those crude methods of punishments were meted out on criminals either at an open esplanade or at a public venue, for the countrymen to watch, assuming that would deter others from indulging in criminal activities. Inhuman punishments of this nature had been imposed on criminals by our ancient rulers from time immemorial.

After we became a colony of the British Empire in 1815 a complete and comprehensive change took place in all aspects and spheres of the country and in the lives of people. The British rulers introduced their own civil administrative systems. Among the major changes they made in the civil society, was the introduction of judicial systems that was of paramount importance. As an integral component of the judicial system, capital punishment came to be enacted by way of hanging.

After gaining independence from imperial bondage in 1948, our local political leaders too continued the same system and capital punishment was meted out on criminals duly convicted by the judiciary.

Capital punishment abolished

S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike, the fourth Prime Minister of independent Ceylon who came in to power with a convincing victory with his ideology and charisma, abolished the capital punishment in 1955 with the Buddha Jayanthi Celebrations, amid severe objections from his own party stalwarts.

Prime Minister Bandaranaike was assassinated in 1959 and Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the Premier. She immediately reintroduced the capital punishment which remained in practice until the late seventies. During 1959-1977 a substantial number of criminals who were duly convicted after the thorough judicial process were sentenced to death by hanging which were finally endorsed by the then leaders of the country.

When the death sentence is passed on a criminal, he is kept in isolation away from other prisoners. He is reminded of his crime almost every day prior to the date of his hanging by the prison authorities.

This particular exercise had proved that notorious criminals had become extremely timid and started pleading for life. Such a scenario has psychological impact on the other prisoners and miscreants in society which leads to a reduction of crimes in country.

Law becomes defunct

Capital punishment remained in force until the late seventies and when J.R. Jayewardena became the President with his Dharmishta Samajayak ideology, capital punishment became completely defunct although the law was in force. The death sentence had annually been passed on a number of criminals in the past and there had been agreements and disagreements and different lines of thought on some of these verdicts.

The main allegation against some of these judgements was that innocent parties had been victimised due to various lapses while the real culprits had gone scot free using the undue influence of the police and sometimes retaining top legal luminaries to defend themselves.

However, it is not fair for anybody to accuse or point fingers at lawyers since their job is to look after the interest of their clients, whether the client is right or wrong.

When we study the trial reports and verdicts delivered and subsequent developments and findings, we cannot outright reject the fact that there had been incorrect judgements and innocent parties had been victimised in the past. Their families had fallen in to dire straits and ended up destitute on the streets.

We have also seen instances of criminals who had been convicted more than once or twice, being pardoned and released after a short period, committing more heinous crimes sometimes even multiple murders.

If capital punishment had been meted out at the first instance itself, such unfortunate subsequent crimes could have been avoided. There is no doubt that we are a cultured, civilised and affable society and respect the right of the life of everyone. But observing scrutinising and investigating the crimes committed by certain underworld gangsters and organised goons, most say that it is absolutely necessary that capital punishment be imposed forthwith for the greater good of the public of this country.

However, it is extremely important that the judgements are passed after thoroughly scrutinising all details, facts and figures, substantial evidence, circumstances in which the crimes are committed and the mentalities of the parties involved.

It is suggested that the capital punishment be meted out on criminals with the unanimous agreement of the jury so that the interested parties will not be compelled to make humble requests to grant undue amnesties on the convicted criminals.

Sri Lanka’ system of presidential pardon has been copied from the American system. The spirit of the pardon needs to be qualified to give it a decent face. One might consider a miscarriage of justice, lack of substantial evidence or divided decisions on the bench of judges as important aspects to consider an amnesty.

However, certain amnesties had been subjected to severe criticism and controversy. Reason instances, the Royal Park murder case accused who was duly convicted following the judicial proceedings been pardoned by President Maithripala Sirisena and the amnesty granted to Duminda Silva who was convicted over the killing of Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Different crimes

It is common today to hear of different types of crimes as cold blooded murders, rapes, abductions and torture committed by goons.

Most of them are premeditated and well organised due to long standing animosities, hatred, jealousy, money and sexual tensions. More often than not, we hear of innocent small children being molested and sexually abused by sex maniacs and perverts and sometimes the lifeless bodies of those innocent victims are dumped in forests or muddy shrubs.

If the facts are proved beyond reasonable doubts there should not be any mercy and capital punishment should be meted out on these criminals soon after the trial is over.

Though the capital punishment has been in force, it had not been implemented since the late seventies. There may have been hundreds and thousands of criminals during the past four decades who had been sentenced to death after judicial proceedings. But none were hanged, some are still in prison and some may have got general amnesties.

It is the general belief that some reconvicted criminals enjoy a normal life while serving their prison sentences though their personal influence with the prison authorities.

It is also said that some hardcore criminals who had been involved in drug business spend lavishly on officials and plan other crimes from inside the prison.

Most convicts who had been sentenced to death over the past number of years know very well that they will not be hanged and may even be freed after sometime based on good conduct and behaviour.

They get quite used to prison life. It is doubtful if they become good citizens after serving a long period behind bars.

On special days in the country’s calendar general amnesties are granted to a selected number of convicts based on their good behaviour and moral conduct properly monitored by the prison authorities for a stipulated period of time. It is surprising to hear that there were few instances where these freed prisoners had either pick pocketed while travelling home in public transport or involved in house breakings before reaching home after a number of years.

It proves the saying “Once a thief, always a thief”.

When capital punishment was regularly practised in the past, the crime rate in the country was not as high as it is present. Would be criminals were aware that if they are found guilty, they go to the gallows.

The official announcement of the re-imposition of the capital punishment was made a few years ago and immediately there was a significant drop in the crime rate in the country.

The re-implementation of the death sentence or capital punishment is a very sensitive and complicated matter as it entails both advantages and disadvantages.

Most members of the legal fraternity, some religious organisations, politicians and pressure groups and even some civil rights organisations may raise objections for the implementation of the capital punishment.

But when you look at the very rapidly escalating gruesome and heinous multiple murders occurring almost every other day, it is imperative that drastic measures has to be taken forthwith.

It is high time that the re-imposition of the death penalty is seriously considered to combat the ever increasing crime rate in the country.