“I will show how to die…!,”said Madduma Bandara and marched forward before anyone else and placed his head on the jolly old block where the executioner promptly separated it from his body with one mighty stroke.( History – both the story and Madduma Bandara.) I sometimes wonder why on earth Madduma Bandara rushed forward and [...]

Sunday Times 2

The killing committee and the death warrant


“I will show how to die…!,”said Madduma Bandara and marched forward before anyone else and placed his head on the jolly old block where the executioner promptly separated it from his body with one mighty stroke.( History – both the story and Madduma Bandara.)

In the United States, several states have adopted the lethal injection on the basis that it is more humane

I sometimes wonder why on earth Madduma Bandara rushed forward and kept his head on the block quite out of the pecking order. Was it really because of his fearlessness or was it because he was too frightened to see his brothers being executed and thought he’d better go first before he fainted? Of course this is not intended as a reflection on what is legend, but the thought crosses my mind occasionally in my contemplative moments.

That being said let us now turn to more fruitful areas of thought regarding judicial executions. The great majority of people are afraid to die: a few are afraid to live. The first category would prefer an entire lifetime in jail to being executed. This fear may be twofold: the fear of dying or the dying process. These are two quite distinct areas in the business of dying. The first is the mental trauma of leaving behind the worldly things that the condemned man must leave behind and fear of what lies in store. The second is the manner of dying, and the unimaginable physical pain of it.

Mode of execution
It seems from recent local TV news broadcasts, that the mode of executing a convict has not yet been finalised. There were several recognised methods of which two are now obsolete: the firing squad, the gallows, the electric chair (now obsolete), guillotine (now obsolete), the gas chamber, and by lethal injection, and the Middle Eastern methods which may not claim to have universal recognition but still function.

In the United States, several states have adopted the lethal injection on the basis that it is more humane. The electric chair is where the convict was strapped to a chair and thousands of volts of electricity were sent into the convict via electrodes fastened to his body — must be quite a shocking experience — and was supposed to be more humane — but it is said that the convict had to be given about three doses before he finally succumbed. There are also stories that he often bites his tongue, his eyes pop out and smoke issues from his body.

In the gas chamber, the convict is strapped to a chair and cyanide capsules are dropped into a receptacle containing sulphuric acid, the combination of which releases the lethal gas, and the convict is advised to breathe in as quickly as possible to make it quick. Maybe the advisers would not be so advisory, had they themselves inhaled a whiff or two.

The lethal injection method comprises three injections. The convict is strapped down and given the first injection to make him unconscious. The second relaxes his heart muscles and the third stops it. Supposed to be more humane. But of course, no one has been able to interview such a person on the way like Dodampe Mudalali who is supposed to have said “So far so good” as he shot past the second floor.

Maybe the most humane method — subject to medical opinion — was by chopping off heads on the block, as was done here and in England during the monarchies, or what Saudi Arabia did to Rizana Nafeek, the young housemaid, recently, by beheading her in the town square. Another was the guillotine which was used to get rid of the aristocracy of France during the French Revolution. The victim was strapped to a board that was fixed on a pivot and the moment the strapping down was complete the board pivoted on it axis and the blade came crashing down separating the head from the body.

In Sri Lanka, from the olden days, executions were done by beheading, impaling on a stake, torture, ripping apart, burning at the stake, and such like. The comparatively modern method is by hanging. Of course the end result of all these exercises is the same.

And, in Sri Lanka, the most popular method of execution now is the extrajudicial execution by Uzi, AK 47 or its successors, and the 9mm. There seems to be an added flavour in the bomb attack and the suicide bomber who doesn’t care who gets it so long as somebody gets it. So much for the extrajudicial executions.

Dead men do not look noble
Legend and fact have it that most of the nobility and many a national hero — of course at the time they were all called traitors — went to their respective executions in regal or heroic fashion with heads held high. As a matter of comment, many are the occasions where the traitors of the past were hailed as heroes by the present and vice versa.

Be that as it may, some of the best examples of the regal way to die are chronicled with reference to King Charles, who was beheaded during the Cromwell revolutions, Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, Madame Roland, Charlotte de Corday, Georges Danton, and a host of others guillotined during the Reign of Terror in France in the time of the Napoleonic Revolution. Nicholas, the Czar of Russia and his entire family faced the firing squad. It is said that they all went to their deaths without protest and with heads held high — and of course ended without them.

I often wonder why people, especially public figures, go to their executions in this manner merely because the sovereign orders their execution, the home truth being that however nobly one goes to his death on the scaffold or elsewhere, dead men do not look noble.

Abdication of presidential power
Now, after having briefly explored the methods of execution, let us consider the Killing Committee. The above brief survey of the modes of executions was to provide food for thought for the reader to contemplate on the implications of what follows: Recent media reports said that a committee is to be appointed by the President to select three prisoners under death sentence from a list of 19 names submitted, for execution. This, to my mind, is akin to what Pontius Pilate did when he got down a bowl of water and washed his hands off the crucifixion of Jesus.

It seems, that if such a committee is appointed then if would amount to a breach of the Constitution, and an illegal abdication of presidential power. The normal procedure is for the President to decide whether a sentence of death pronounced on a prisoner by the High Court should be carried out or commuted to life. This decision is based on the observations made by the High Court which pronounced the sentence, the Attorney General, and the recommendation of the Minister of Justice. It is done on a case by case basis as they come in and not by lumping together a number of names and letting a committee select three of them to be hanged. This procedure stuns the mind.

It may be that the President, as a man, is squeamish to sign a death warrant: this, I suppose is natural, because no one in his right mind would wish to order the death of another human being. But as a President, the situation is different (no pun intended). He is constitutionally required to sanction the death sentence or to commute it. This unholy function cannot be delegated to a committee.

The appointment of such a committee would amount to a direct slap in the face of the administration of justice, would it not? Today, the catchword is corruption. People, politicians, the Diasporas, international bodies, howl and screech about corruption in Sri Lanka – forgetting, of course, dishes of corruption rotting in their own backyards. Would not the appointment of a committee to pick those who should be hanged out of a large roster of candidates be an invitation to the largest scale corruption ever known to man? Oh! My beloved country!

This committee brings to mind the Committee of Public Safety appointed during the Reign of Terror in the times of the French Revolution. Maximillian de Robespierre, who was a member of the committee which decided on who was to die and who was to live, had the last word on it. He himself went to the guillotine later. Do not confuse this with the constitutional powers of the President who will sign a death warrant after it is pronounced by a court of competent jurisdiction after a fair trial. Now, with the appointment of a committee, there will be an unconstitutional intervenient body between the court and the President. This unconstitutional body will select a given number of prisoners out of a full complement and forward those names to the President for sanction of the death sentence. As it appears now, on receipt of the selection, the President will merely lend his signature to the respective warrants and those in the selection will be executed. So, we have another Reign of Terror compounded with the possibility of intellectual, moral, and material corruption at an unimaginable scale.

Of Asses and Men
There was once a little country which had two tribes of asses. One tribe had only blue coats and the other tribe had coats of all colours except blue. The blue coated asses were always well fed, plump, and galloped around in luxurious comfort and lived in air conditioned stables whilst the other asses were always hungry, poor, and went about their business by public transport which was more on strike than at work. They had no medicines, no doctors –because the doctor asses spent more time galloping around the streets than sitting on their Hippocratic seats in the hospitals — and lived in dilapidated barns and sheds.
Complaints made by the ragged asses to the blue coated asses resulted in their getting themselves assaulted and beaten and threatened with incarceration if they continued to complain.

One day, as things were going from bad to worse, the blue coated asses appointed a Weeding Committee to weed out the good ragged asses from the whole basket of ragged asses in the course of which the members of the committee got fatter and fatter until they could barely sit in the Parliament chairs. Into this miserable state of affairs loped in a young lawyer ass who set up his Chamber in the town square and sat under a board with the legend “Complaints”. One by one the ragged asses plucked up their courage and brayed their complaints with special reference to the Weeding Committee. The young lawyer ass wrote down the complaints meticulously and placed them in the box which was his table. As the Weeding Committee began weeding, a small breeze whispered across the town square and picked up a few of the complaints and scattered them round the town. The weeding accelerated and the breeze grew into a wind which took the pieces of paper and scattered them around the nearby villages and the inhabitants began to read and add their complaints to those that were circulating. The Weeding Committee stepped up activities and the wind grew into a gale and scattered the papers all over the country. And then….the story teller stopped. The listener asked him what happened next. The story teller replied, “How can I say, since we are not asses but men…?”

When men run out of words, they reach for their swords –Oliver Cromwell
(The writer is a President’s Counsel)

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