Death Penalty - Murder by any other name
By Sandaruwan Madduma Bandara
Sri Lanka is on a downward spiral. It seemed that the citizens of Sri Lanka had but one truly fundamental right left -- the right to life. Now the government is proposing to rid us of that final right.
It is unfortunate that even at the dawn of a new millenium the government is considering the introduction of so medieval and savage a practice as the death penalty. The last execution carried out in Sri Lanka was that of Embilipitiya Chandadasa alias 'Honda Papuwa,' on June 22, 1976. The government is citing a rising crime rate as its excuse for bringing back the death penalty. However, it is clear that once again the government is acting without rational basis.
The rising crime rate has political, economic and sociological root causes rather than the absence of harsh punishment. The punishment has absolutely no direct bearing on whether a crime will be committed or not for the simple reason that the punishment is, 1. given ex post facto (after the fact), and 2. only given if the criminal is caught. No criminal expects to get caught and so does not consider the punishment.
The only way to properly combat crime is by introducing more advanced and efficient methods of enforcement. The police force must be better trained, better equipped and better deployed. Better safety measures must be taken against robbery and violent crimes. Today we have a government that does not enforce existing laws. It is the government itself that violates many of the written laws in this country.
Detterence: On the face of it, it seems to make sense that harsher penalties would make a criminal less likely to commit crimes. However, comprehensive studies prove beyond any doubt that the death penalty does not deter crime. The respected Thorsten Sellin studies of the United States in 1962, 1967 and 1980 concluded that the death penalty was not a deterrent.
A commission appointed in 1957 by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike also came to the same conclusion in Sri Lanka. It is a pity that Bandaranaike left no one to carry his high ideals. It is relevant to note that some of the highest crime rates in the US prevail in exactly those states that carry out the death penalty; for instance Texas and New York. The presence of the death penalty has in no way deterred the murderers in these states.
The Execution of Innocents: No matter how rigorous a legal system is, if it is run by human beings, they will always make mistakes. They will also be driven by human prejudice. The fundamental advantage of life imprisonment over the death penalty is that a person later found to be innocent can be released. The death penalty cannot be reversed. The United States has perhaps the most comprehensive legal system in the world. "Studies show that in [the 20th century], at least 400 innocent people have been convicted of capital crimes they did not commit. Of those 400, 23 were executed."
Racism and Prejudice: Race is an important factor in determining who is sentenced to die in the United States. In 1990, a report from the General Accounting Office concluded that, "in 82% of the studies [reviewed], race of the victim was found to influence the likelihood of being charged with capital murder or receiving the death penalty, i.e., those who murdered whites were more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks." Of the executions in the USA between 1930 and 1967, 54% were black persons although blacks constitute only some 12% of the population of that country. In Sri Lanka Tamil and Muslim criminals will be given the death penalty more often for the same crimes than Sinhalese. The death penalty will without doubt exacerbate the ethnic problem and create additional tensions with the Muslims.
Favours the Rich: Rich people can afford better legal assistance than poor people. Rich people will be less likely to get the death penalty for exactly the same crimes that a poor person will be executed for. In a country that has a majority of poor people and where the income and wealth disparity is vast, this kind of legal bias in favour of the rich will do nothing for social stability. The execution of the poor will be the kind of excuse youth insurrectionists will need to take this country back to the killing fields.
Gender: American death penalty statistics show that the number of women executed as a percentage of those eligible for the death penalty is far less than that of men. This shows a clear bias in favour of women. This is unjust and gives women an unnatural advantage in the punishment they face. On average a man will be executed for committing the exact same crime for which a woman will receive a lesser sentence. There probably isn't a single man in this country who is man enough to hang a woman.
Cost: "It costs more to execute a person than to keep him or her in prison for life. A 1993 California study shows that each death penalty case costs at least $1.25 million more than a regular murder case and a sentence of life without possibility of parole." If one day our legal system were to improve to the level of the current American system, the same economic argument would hold -- it will cost more to impose the death penalty on a person than to put them in prison for life.
The Families of Victims: Executions do not compensate the families of the victims. They merely serve to prolong the pain, as the trial and appeals process is drawn out, sometimes over years. Ultimately the only purpose of the death penalty is as an instrument of revenge. It is shameful for the State to be used for this kind of purpose.
The Witch Hunt Psychosis: While in countries like England, crowds used to throng public hangings, in colonial times public executions in Sri Lanka were shirked by the general populace. It was considered shameful and degrading. This is not surprising since the principle of ahimsa is deeply rooted in our national identity. It is Western cultures that have delighted in the gory spectacle. In fact the hunt becomes so obsessive that the ultimate goal is to execute someone -- not necessarily the person who has committed the crime. Given the opportunity of sentencing someone to death, juries have become 'trigger happy.' Perhaps the most dangerous repercussion of introducing the death penalty to Sri Lanka will be the irrevocable damage done to our culture.
Religion: All the major religions regard executions as immoral. The front page article on the Sunday Times of March 14, 1999 erroneously claims that "Buddhist prelates welcomed the move." This is nonsense. The reporter had managed to find one Buddhist prelate who had approved of the death penalty. Buddhism remains committed to ahimsa and as such any monk or layperson who approves of the death penalty is not expressing a Buddhist opinion.
An Oppressive and Tyrannical State: Use of the death penalty is a measure of the savagery and incompetence of the government and the society that tolerates it. Among the handful of countries that still use the death penalty are Iraq, Iran, Nigeria and China. The European Union has outlawed the death penalty. Countries that resort to the death penalty come under a lot of fire from the international community. Specifically we are required to abolish the death penalty under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Sri Lanka's human rights image will suffer if people are executed again, and so will our capacity to receive international aid.
In any legal system, there is room for error. When we are contemplating taking away the life of a fellow human being, there is absolutely no excuse to play with the possibility of error. During the 20th century, over 7,000 people have been executed in the United States. How many were executed because they were black, rather than because they were guilty? Many executions were in the latter half of the century. To cite just one example, on July 14, 1998, Thomas Martin Thompson was executed in California, despite evidence of innocence. There is only one way of looking at such "mistakes;" state sanctioned murder.
The so-called proposed 'safety mechanism' of the Sri Lankan government is a consensus between the trial judge, attorney general and minister of justice. This provides absolutely no check since all three are government cronies. Unlike a developed country, we have no rigorous system of appeals that ensures the charged is given every opportunity to exonerate him or herself.
In a recent interview Karu Jayasuriya mentioned that he supported the death penalty only if the UNP's independent police and judicial commissions were implemented. "Under the current system, you and I can be framed for crimes we did not commit and executed by the government," he said.
The onset of fascism in Sri Lanka is not far off. With the PA government, the death penalty will become an instrument of political oppression. There were over 1,000 incidents of violence during the 2000 parliamentary elections including a series of murders. Where are the throngs of criminals who committed these acts? Have they been charged? Have the police even investigated? Any death penalty introduced in Sri Lanka's current political ambience will be a selective, partisan death penalty. Justice will be neither blind nor impartial. To parody the words of a famous Sinhala drama it will be, rajayata ramanaya, wipakshayata maranaya. (Sex for the government, death to the opposition).
Once death penalty is introduced it will be too late to complain when it is used as an instrument of political revenge, as it was once in 1959. Only fools can argue that these things will not happen. If a government can rig something as simple as a national election, is there any question about its capacity to rig the evidence in a murder trial?
People support the death penalty because of their ignorance of the subject, or because of their lack of imagination and stupidity. We may be a poor country, but until now we at least had the pride of being a nation with civilised principles. Let us change only our poverty.