In the fitness of things, the Supreme Court this week granted leave to proceed in a Fundamental Rights case on behalf of a group of ladies claiming their rights as citizens have been violated by a Presidential decree preventing women from working in the alcohol business. This order coincided with another Presidential fiat calling for [...]


Setting up of apex drug enforcement authority imperative


In the fitness of things, the Supreme Court this week granted leave to proceed in a Fundamental Rights case on behalf of a group of ladies claiming their rights as citizens have been violated by a Presidential decree preventing women from working in the alcohol business. This order coincided with another Presidential fiat calling for the death penalty to be implemented on drug traffickers.

The President has put his finger on the bigger picture, at last, perhaps shocked by the discovery of a haul of over 100 kilograms of heroin with a street value of Rs. 1.2 billion last week. This week in Kantalai, Police detected 9.9 kgs of heroin with a street value of Rs. 110 million.

According to Customs statistics, 23 kgs of cocaine were detected at entry points to the country in the first six months of this year. Hashish, cannabis or ganja, narcotic tablets and other harmful substances are flowing into the country and finding their way to schools, night clubs, the inner cities and cheap tourist abodes. It is a multimillion rupee business. In 2016, drug related arrests were 390 per 100,000 population.

Back in December last year, we wrote in an editorial; “…the beer debate must thus be addressed in the overall context of adulterated arrack, the flourishing moonshine (kasippu) industry that thrives due to the high price of arrack and nowadays, the proliferation of narcotics ranging from heroin to Kerala ganja down to toffees with intoxicant substances that aim to suck schoolkids into harder drugs”. There is a pressing need for a super structure that coordinates the alcohol and narcotics industry to strike a balance between the extremes of prohibition and alcohol and drug abuse. But the Government is struggling to come up with a cohesive realistic policy as the coalition partnership’s neo-liberals and the ultra-conservatives fight an ideological battle among themselves.

In the 1960s, the Point Pedro Police intercepted a boat belonging to an erstwhile drug lord named Vishnusunderam, but found only a religious statue on board with the men. The statue was later deposited in a temple and a blessing ceremony held. Weeks passed and all was forgotten. The statue was then taken to a home, the belly opened and a haul of drugs taken out. The drug lord then purchased a car from a Colombo finance company on a hire purchase scheme and deliberately defaulted on the instalments. The company sent a team from Colombo to seize the car and drive it back to Colombo. In Colombo, the instalment was honoured and the car re-purchased. The upholstery was ripped open and the hidden drugs removed.

Fifty years and more later, such modus operandi has become even more sophisticated. Drugs are concealed inside people’s bellies, containers, tyres, false bottoms of fish boxes etc,. and arrests are only on tip-offs or chance detections. Big bucks are tantalisingly thrown in the face of police and military personnel. The reach of the drug cartel is at high levels. Politicians are funded. And operational intelligence is poor, or compromised.

It is one huge task. Dismantling the drug cartel is easier said than done, especially when corruption has been allowed to thrive from top to bottom. Once allowed to grow to monstrous proportions, as has happened, what could have been done with the fingernail now has to be done with an axe, as the local idiom goes. The Philippines has opted to take the latter path, ruthlessly adopting extra-judicial killings of those involved in the drug trade as human rights activists howl in protest. Many countries in South East Asia have, and do carry out the death penalty for drug traffickers. The worldwide debate on the death penalty continues meanwhile. In the US, some states still enforce it, while in Europe it is anathema.

On October 11, 2015, then Foreign and current Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera wrote a Guest Column to the Sunday Times arguing against the death penalty. He began by quoting the Buddha’s First Precept which refers to not taking the life of another. He wrote that it was his father as Deputy Minister of Justice in the SLFP Government of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike that introduced Capital Punishment Act No. 20 which abolished the death penalty. Ironically, the death penalty was re-introduced just three years later following the assassination of Mr. Bandaranaike and his killer was hanged. The Minister strenuously argued that “it requires a collective arrogance as a society perhaps with megalomania to take such irreversible steps even when we risk being wrong”.

This week, the Cabinet of Ministers, in its wisdom took that collective decision to implement the death penalty. In his column the Minister argued that those with adequate financial muscle can somehow get away and it is only the poor who will suffer the fate of a death penalty. “The rich, the powerful, the connected – the drug barons, the racketeers, the corrupt – will not really have anything to fear”. There is some truth in what he says, and it cuts across the President’s intentions.

The debate will nevertheless continue. On the one hand, assessed against the precepts of all religious teachings, the intentional taking of life by the State is wrong. Once a life is snuffed out that cannot be reversed even if it is discovered years later – as it has happened all over the world, that the person was innocent. On the other hand, drug cartels that work on the twin formula of bribery and murder of those who get in the way cannot be treated with kid gloves. However politically incorrect it may be to say so, collateral damage is inevitable in the greater good for society. Many would compare that to the way the violent uprisings in Sri Lanka were brought under control by the stern hand of the State.

Already, the Government’s announcement that it will implement the death penalty in particularly notorious cases may have caused consternation among drug kingpins who are seemingly enjoying the luxuries of prison life. To quote the Minister in 2015 again, he said “if we want to really deter criminals, we need to restore and empower the judiciary and the police”. But merely abstaining from giving telephone calls to judges for favourable judgments, or increasing salaries may not be enough to empower them. These must be secured by institutional reforms, which we are yet to see.

The police, widely perceived as corrupt, is beset by political pressure from all sides. It is a known fact that the underworld is hand-in-glove with local police stations and good officers lack professional morale and political backing. A new apparatus like the United States’ DEA (Drug Enforcement Authority) which has very wide powers and is drawn from handpicked officers is imperative – like how the STF was set up, before it is too late, to fight the drug cartels. Paying lip-service just will not do.

Such a move, if at all, must come together with a national alcohol and drug abuse policy, but the coalition partners are seemingly at variance on social issues to come to that point. Otherwise, it will only be the interminable brouhaha over the implementation of the death penalty.

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