Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 11 October 2015





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Government Gazette

Demanding the right to hang

The call for the death penalty in Sri Lanka has been gaining momentum in the recent weeks. Such thirst for vengeance is unbecoming of a Buddhist society that lays claim to a philosophy of compassion. A society so easily seduced by the bloodlust of premeditated murder cannot continue to profess the virtues of metta, karuna, mudita, and upekkha.

As Sri Lankans, the detailed and profound understanding of what entails wilful and premeditated destruction of life, articulated as the first of the five precepts in Buddhist teaching – is what defines us as a Buddhist society. It is the core of our being, and it is who we are.

As Pope Francis called for a “global abolition of the death penalty” during a joint session of the United States Congress, the people of this so-called dharmadveepa are calling for their pound of flesh – their right to hang.

Judicial murder is never the answer – however, heinous the crime. In civilised societies, one cannot have the power of life and death over any other human being.

It is not a right we can claim through judicial ritual or by evoking eye-for-an-eye vengeance. Contemplating the reintroduction of the death penalty, the wilful taking of life, thinly veiled in judicial respectability, is hideous.


Justification for institutionalised murder is often presented as righteous and necessary for the protection of wider society – as the ultimate deterrent to criminal activity. But surely, such justifications are spurious if they are merely based on whim, political expedience or populist belief rather than tangible evidence that prove a causal link between the death penalty and a reduction in violent crime.

The truth is, no such evidentiary link is apparent, and there is no reliable proof that such a link has ever existed. At best the studies suggest the evidence is inconclusive.

The champions of capital punishment often point to countries such as Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia as beacons of justice, claiming their unrelenting zeal in practising judicial murder has made these societies safer. But the work of criminologists like Columbia Law School's Jeffrey Fagan exposes the hollowness of this argument. Fagan and two of his colleagues found there was no tangible difference in the level of serious crime in Hong Kong, that has abolished the death penalty, and Singapore that has continued with the practice.

Similarly, a study conducted by Yale University’s law professor John Donohue and the University of Pennsylvania’s Justin Wolfers, came to the same conclusion.

Their comprehensive study, published in the prestigious Stanford Law Review, examined penal data from 1934, covering executing and non-executing states in the US and Canada.

Baying for blood in the absence of evidence that proves the death penalty’s efficacy as a deterrent makes a mockery of any claims it is necessary for crime prevention and the protection of society. Rather, it reveals a telling bloodlust – a base desire for vengeance, a desire to be party to revenge murder, to take a human life under the guise of maintaining law and order protected by judicial respectability. It is primal and primitive behaviour that should have no place in enlightened civilized society.

Justice and vengeance

To present execution as a viable penalty, in a country where political interference has destroyed any semblance of judicial independence and integrity – where there exists a de facto two-tier justice system favouring those with wealth and political power, where the instruments of law can be bought and wielded at will, and where a chief justice can be arbitrarily ousted without due process – is beyond folly.

While we must certainly seek justice for victims of crime, it is important we recognise that justice and vengeance are not the same. Sadly, even a former Chairman of a Prison Inspection Committee, equated justice with vengeance in a recent newspaper op-ed piece claiming: “This horrible crime must be avenged for its own sake.” Such inciteful writings only serve to show the poor grasp we have of justice and only further stress why we should not have the right of life and death over others.

Any decision to reintroduce the death penalty in Sri Lanka, ultimately rubber stamped by a president and cabinet, will in reality, be a decision by Sri Lankans by virtue of our action or indeed our inaction.

As a civilised society that celebrates and revels in the achievements of its most promising, we must also accept a duty of care to our most aberrant.

The barbarity of the death penalty is not life affirming, it only serves to cheapen human life and strips us of our humanity, which is why the reintroduction of the death penalty is something every Sri Lankan must consider deeply – it is not a moral choice we can delegate to others.

This notion of the death penalty requires some serious soul-searching. This is even more important for every Buddhist in the country who proclaims they live in a dharmadveepa and claim to live by the code.

Dr. Kasun Ubayasiri is a former Sri Lankan journalist, media ethicist and journalism academic. He is the Director of the Griffith University Bachelor of Journalism Program and a member of the Griffith University Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance, and is a Research Associate at The Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence in Policing and Security.

[EU denounces death penalty]

To mark the International Day against the Death Penalty which fell on 10 October, the European Union has issued the following statement.

It said the death penalty is a cruel and ineffective punishment. The European Union, Norway and Switzerland oppose the death penalty in all circumstances.

“The EU welcomes the announcement by the Minister of Justice Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe that Sri Lanka would vote in favour of the UN General Assembly resolution on a moratorium on the death penalty. The death penalty represents an unacceptable denial of human dignity and violates the right to life universally affirmed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and reaffirmed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Its worldwide abolition is a priority.

“Evidence from around the world shows that there is no evidence that the death penalty deters crime. The death penalty is irreversible. Mistaken identity and wrongful convictions do happen. Many death sentences are issued after confessions obtained by torture. Innocent people die.

You are more likely to be sentenced to death if you are poor or belong to an ethnic or religious minority,” it stated.

The EU also stated that in 2014, at least 22 countries around the world carried out executions and at least 2,466 people were sentenced to death – an increase of 28%. “Many of those convicted spend years on death row, waiting to see if a reprieve will be granted. Sri Lanka currently has more than 400 prisoners under sentence of death adding that 101 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes.”


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