The nation can already hear the sound of nails being driven into the scaffolding by the prison governor to hang the man who raped and killed little Seya following President Sirisena’s announcement last month that the death penalty would be carried out next year if Parliament is of the same opinion as he is. In [...]


Hang him not jail him for lifeWhere would YOU put the comma?


The nation can already hear the sound of nails being driven into the scaffolding by the prison governor to hang the man who raped and killed little Seya following President Sirisena’s announcement last month that the death penalty would be carried out next year if Parliament is of the same opinion as he is.

In anticipation of the sudden work load that may fall down upon his department soon, the Prison Commissioner has also hired two new promising hangmen to officially perform a ‘little light administration duty’ starting with the first condemned man brought to swing. In the best traditions of the scout’s motto, he announced on Wednesday: “We should be prepared.”

He may well be ready. And his conscience — the fact that he is dutifully performing his most unenvied task of being the lawful commander of Lanka’s official killer squad in the most efficient and competent manner — may well be sate and clear. But is the nation prepared to have blood on its hands, even if it’s gloved in velvet and clasped in prayer. Aghast, horrified and angered as the people are over the brutal murder of a little girl, is highly charged emotion roused by a gruesome killing the best base to decide a question of life and death of another human being, howsoever vile and unfit to breathe earth’s blessed air? Does any crime justify man’s right to play God?

Five days after little Seya’s body was found raped and dumped near a canal, President Maithripala Sirisena released the trapdoor and let the controversial issue of the death penalty swing before the public gaze.

Speaking at the National Drug Prevention Programme in Galle on September 18, the President said: “Following the rape and murder of the little girl this week, a public outcry has risen for the imposition of the death penalty. Again in the last few years when such incidents occurred, public opinion clamoured for the death penalty to be imposed. Even at the funeral of the little girl, I saw people asking the president to enforce the death penalty. But this entails human rights issues and human rights organisations are opposed to it. However, capital punishment is still in use in powerful nations such as China and the United States. Therefore I am not averse to imposing the death penalty. Though I have the power to give effect to the death sentence imposed by the courts, I will place the issue before Parliament, not for a resolution — for that is not necessary — but for their opinion and if there is a consensus in Parliament, then I hope to carry out the death sentence from next year.”

President Maithripala was correct when he said that a new act of parliament is not necessary to give effect to hang convicted murderers. The death penalty for first degree murder has always existed in Lanka’s penal code and does not need a Parliamentary re-enactment. The last judicial execution took place in 1976. Why it has remained in limbo for the last 39 years was because President J. R. Jayewardene never signed the final death warrant, opting instead to commute the death penalty to life imprisonment. Having ridden to power in 1977 with a solemn pledge to usher in a ‘Dharmishta Society’, even as Maithripala rode to the presidency this year with a promise to dawn a ‘Maithree era’, President Jayewardene stopped short of exercising his discretion to decide on a matter which lay beyond his earthly province. Perhaps he was a better Buddhist than he is given credit for he must have known that the natural law of karmic action does not recognise motive as a mitigating or absolving factor in its operation, even as one reaps what one sows regardless of the motive, as distinct from intention, involved in the act of sowing.

Intention is indispensable to constitute the karmic act of killing. Motive, be it either good or bad is not. Whether a motive is good or evil depends on one’s own cultural conditioning and religious brainwashing. What maybe an evil motive to a Buddhist may be a good motive to a Muslim and vice-versa. Who is to decide who is right and who is wrong?

Motive is generally considered good when the act benefits oneself or one’s loved ones or one’s community. It may also change with time and what was perceived as good a hundred years ago may today be condemned as evil. The karmic law, like nature’s physical law of gravity and the law of motion, operates solely on the basis that each act accompanied by the vital constituent of intention or mens rea in legal terms, will have an equal and similar reaction.

The concept of duty is man made and though one may be justified in the eyes of his fellow men and stand absolved of any legal wrong if one acts in pursuance of such a legal duty and sanctions murder by proxy, it cuts no dice in the natural operation of karmic law. Man made courts may order it on the basis of man made laws and a man made constitution which governs the petty affairs of men and nations may well impose upon the highest in the land with a duty to ensure that the punishment so ordered is meted out on the convicted doer of the crime.

Cloaked with immunity from the due process of man made laws, such a person exercising his discretionary powers may well acquit himself with honour and receive the highest accolade from the people he represents in whose interests he has acted. As far as the citizenry is concerned, his motives are beyond question and his act may well be hailed as one inviting the highest merit. But in the realm of karma, such man made concepts and justifications hold no place. Thus when a president signs the death warrant that will give final effect to the will of man made courts and judgments delivered by men, he participates in the act of killing by proxy however far removed he may consider himself to be from the execution and snuffing of human life, strangulating another human being with a noose round his neck even as Seya was strangled with her own T shirt by her executioner.

Perhaps to J.R. Jayewardene, who proclaimed himself as a follower of India’s greatest son Gautama the Buddha, the concept of karma may have appeared in more intuitive light than to those who hold the Mahavamsa view that Dutugamunu was born in Thusita heaven after his death for the merit earned flaying the Dravidian King Elara, unifying the land under the Sinhala Buddhist banner and building the great thupa thereafter.

Perhaps all those presidents who succeeded J.R. Jayewardene also felt a moral repugnance to sign the death warrant and wisely abstained from authorising the killing of another. Perhaps this is why even the present incumbent President Maithripala who holds the same unquestioned legal power as his predecessor held but did not use, falters to bear the burden alone and seeks moral comfort in a body representing the masses, namely, Parliament to share the load with him by collectively agreeing to judicial murder.

But alas Parliament is not made up of Arahants who may well have discoursed on karmic properties nor even of Greek Gods who, holding in their pantheon Nemesis, the Goddess of Divine Retribution, could have cast their celestial light on the cap[ital issue.
Nay, even if the entire populace were to cheer on the President to sign the death warrants and undertook to collectively bear the responsibility, the karmic law could not have spared the holder of the highest office in the land if he deemed it fit to exercise his people given power and order the premeditated judicial killing of another human being. For karma is deaf and blind to the reasons proffered by mortal men as justifications for their actions.

The laws of earth may condone his actions. The laws of heaven will condemn, irrespective of his motive to safeguard his people by acting in their best interest and inflicting such a heinous and absolute punishment with permanent consequences intended to serve as a deterrent for other would be murderers.

But would it be a deterrent? A common reason cited for the vast increase in murder in the last few years is the suspension of the death penalty. But can the correlation be ever proved beyond mere conjecture? Could it be that the vast increase in drug use, and the dehumanisation of Lankan society as a result of the brutal barbaric 30 year terrorist war, greatly contributed to devalue the sanctity of human life? Consider the following cases:

CASE 1: A person kills in the heat of the moment due to sudden anger, hatred, jealousy or intoxication. At the time of killing his thoughts are commandeered by rage or by intoxicants which effectively eclipses all rational thought. In such a situation will the death penalty serve to deter him?

CASE 2: Take a serial killer, like England’s Jack the Ripper or New York’s Son of Sam or Lanka’s own Kahawatte Hacker who has preyed on older women for the last eight years and struck again only weeks ago claiming his 18th victim. These are pathological killers. They may also suffer from schizophrenia and have split personalities like a Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. As Dr Jekylls they may be respected members of society. When their Mr. Hyde character takes over they become murderous psychopaths and no threat of capital punishment can serve as a deterrent.

CASE 3: There have been many drug related murders in recent years. This is where a drug addict in search of money to finance his daily fix resorts to burglary. He is ruled not by reason but driven by his body’s craving for the daily fix. There are many instances of addicts attacking their parents when refused money. To them capital punishment is no deterrent. They will do anything to feed their addiction. They may even confess to blue murder in a remand cell in return for an immediate fix. All that matters is the present. Not the consequences of actions.

CASE 4: This involves Seya’s murder, the worst of murders imaginable that has sparked off public opprobrium and brought the issue of reactivating the death penalty and putting murderers to death. Such murders are committed by the sickest of minds, perverted sadistic paedophiles who derive warped pleasure through rape and murder of little children. No doubt they deserve death by hanging or worse but the question here is whether the death penalty would be a deterrent to others similarly bent and beyond the pale. The truth is that they may even welcome death as a small price to pay for a moment of perverse gratification of their depraved lust.

CASE 5: This involves the planned premeditated murder. It can be done for many reasons. But often than not, the killer planning the murder also plans his getaway; he acts in the belief that he will never get caught. As for contract killers, for each one who gets caught and is hanged, the godfather will find another who too believes in the fool proof nature of his plan to commit the perfect murder. The only effect capital punishment will have is it will enable them to command even higher fees in proportion to the higher risk as their charges for murder.

CASE 6: Murder as result of terrorism. Terrorists fight for a cause, a cause they believe it is worth to die for. Take the case of Tamil Tigers. They did not wait for any hangman’s noose to claim their last breath. They just swallowed the cyanide pill even before achieving their murderous aim. Judicial executions will only make these cowards martyrs in death. Take a look at the Tigers’ Hall of Fame.

If its deterrence value is so insignificant to justify its deployment, then is execution to be used as a means of revenge to gratify a people’s temporary blood lust and balance the scales with an eye for an eye policy which in the words of Mahatma Gandhi only serves to make the whole world blind. Can it coexist with the moral armoury of a government committed to dawn an era of maithree or loving kindness to all beings, even to its most demonic enemies?

Does it not clash with the noble stanza of the Buddha ‘nahe verena verani’ hatred does not cease by hatred, quoted by Maithripala Sirisena on November20 last year as his opening line in the speech announcing his candidature to contest the presidential election when he declared that revenge was not his aim but it was justice that he sought. Should such a personal moral creed be negated when it comes to pandering to a society’s natural inclination to revenge?

The Catholic Church has for long held that the death penalty was a form of ‘lawful slaying’. But even at the Holy See, the passage of time has wrought change and much water has flowed under Venetian bridges since the days of medieval popes. In 1999, Pope John Paul II appealed not for general agreement to continue the enforcement of the death penalty but for a consensus to end it on the ground that it was “both cruel and unnecessary.” Three weeks ago addressing the American Congress, Pope Francis made an unequivocal call for the death penalty to be abolished worldwide.

With world winds blowing in the direction of the Buddha’s message of loving kindness to all, what makes Lanka, the self-proclaimed bastion of Theravada Buddhism in its pristine form, fly against the flow? And will it not smack of official hypocrisy when with lips we make our daily pledge to refrain from killing but with hands we clap when the ‘kill’ is made on our behalf? Will it not further dehumanise this society, already made insensate to mass murder as a result of the 30-year-old terrorist war?
Today there are 1,116 convicts on death row in Lankan jails, 1,117 exactly when you count last week’s death sentence passed on Wele Suda. If the executions were to begin this coming January 1, even with one scheduled hanging per day, it will take an execution every day for the next three years to complete the backlog of 1,117 killings on the official death list.

That would mean the two hangmen recruited by the Prisons Commissioner to do a ‘little light administrative duties’ will be called upon to hang a human being every day, with Poya days possibly declared off days since humans, no doubt, will be added to the list of animals whose slaughter is banned in government abattoirs on that hallowed monthly day. And you the public will watch on TV, hear on radio and read in the newspapers every day for the next three years that a human being has been executed by hanging that day and that the Government is on track with its 1,117 day official execution programme. And if that won’t dehumanise you and make you insensitive to the premeditated, albeit judicial, murder, tell me what will?

Imagine the President’s inner turmoil when he rises each morning for the next three years and knows that before the sun goes down that day another human being would have been executed on his signed orders?

And to those who clamour from their armchairs demanding the Government to carry out capital punishment, pray, further say, will you do the job yourself and pull the lever to release the trapdoor to make a fellow human swing and then watch his death throes as the noose inexorably tightens round his throat? Or will you shrink away from the task and let another do the dirty work for you, and think no sin stains your soul?

So consider the above headline ‘Hang him not jail him for life’. Where would you place the comma? Will it be: ‘Hang him, not jail him for life’ or will it be ‘Hang him not, jail him for life’? Consider it well before you place the all deciding punctuation mark. For when it comes to taking moral responsibility for judicial murder by proxy, there is no possibility of passing the moral buck and escaping the concomitant karmic consequences.

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