Death penalty: Lanka hangs in balanceView(s):
By Namini Wijedasa
Sri Lanka abstained from voting for a heavily-backed UN resolution that supports a global moratorium on the death penalty leading to its eventual abolition. The resolution was adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 20. The draft was approved in November with 110 countries voting in favour while 39, including the United States and India, voted against.
Sri Lanka was among 36 countries that abstained. Sri Lanka’s abstention comes amidst highly-publicised moves to hire new hangmen. Although candidates were interviewed and shortlisted, the Prisons Department is yet to name them. The two posts are vacant.
Capital punishment remains in the statute books but implementation was suspended more than 30 years ago. The government’s current position on hanging is unclear. Several ministers have publicly called for its introduction after a recent wave of serious crime, particularly against children.
But rather than propose that hanging be reintroduced, the Prisons Department and Ministry of Prisons Rehabilitation have recommended that the Government consider granting remissions of sentence to death row prisoners.
At present, the sentences of all death row prisoners are automatically commuted to life imprisonment. But unlike in the past, the Government has stopped remissions of sentence leading to early release based on good behaviour.
Prisons authorities believe this is counterproductive as it takes away the “rehabilitation” component of imprisonment. “We want to start this practice again,” said Prisons Rehabilitation Ministry Secretary G.S. Withanage. “The former Secretary appointed a committee which suggested that the system be reintroduced. All the suggestions went to the Justice Ministry.”
Justice Ministry Secretary Kamalini de Silva said a committee to be named shortly would explore the possibility of remissions of sentence for prisoners serving life sentences. This includes death row inmates whose terms have been commuted to life. Officials said this committee would study each case individually based on a list and recommendations forwarded to the Ministry by the Prisons Department.
Writing to the Sunday Times, Retired Deputy Commissioner R.J.N. Jordan explained that “the basic principle of prison incarcerations is to reclaim the offender back to society”.
Mr. Jordan said he believed the underlying factor for the recent riots in local prisons, particularly at Welikada, was that inmates languished “without, fundamentally, the prospect of future release if those condemned to death or life are not given fixed terms to serve, even up to 25 or 30 years.”
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