Why Sri Lankans are preoccupied with the death penalty

THE advocacy of capital punishment as a means of arresting the growing crime rate in Sri Lanka is gaining currency. The support for and opposition to capital punishment depends on the experience one undergoes.

By Ameen Izzadeen

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Published: Tue 27 Feb 2007, 8:55 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 8:51 PM

Those who have not been affected by a serious crime such as murder or robbery may see capital punishment as barbaric and inhuman. But the very same person who champions the message of mercy even for a mass murderer may justify capital punishment saying it serves as a deterrent when he becomes a victim.

At the funerals of victims of criminals, the call for the imposition of death penalty is loud and clear —with indignant relatives complaining about the inadequacy of our judicial and legal systems. "We must have strict laws and capital punishment like in Middle Eastern countries," one would hear them talk. But when four Sri Lankans were beheaded in Saudi Arabia and their bodies were publicly displayed, the uproar was universal. Condemnations came from every quarter. Saudi Arabia’s judicial system was torn to pieces. In the process, we all forgot the gravity of the crime the four Sri Lankans had committed. Actually, many in Sri Lanka still do not know why they were executed. It was only after they were executed that some background information began to trickle in —and that too from news agency reports. The reports said the four men were convicted of "forming a criminal gang which robbed a number of companies and threatened accountants and workers with weapons, shooting one of them and stealing his car".

That very little was known or published in the local media about the case prior to the executions on Wednesday leads to two conclusions. Our foreign ministry had deliberately stopped the details of the case being revealed to the media to avoid the embarrassment of being snubbed by the Saudis if the government was forced by public outcry to take up the matter with them and seek reprieve for the convicts. Or our foreign ministry knew very little and did very little about the case. I will hold with the first conclusion as we are now told that a Sri Lankan minister who visited the kingdom last year had appealed for clemency when he met Saudi king Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. But the minister admitted this week that the "king does not interfere in the judiciary". To what extent this statement is true is debatable as there were cases where foreign nationals have been pardoned by the Saudi government.

The pardon granted to three Britons —Sandy Mitchell, Les Walker and William Sampson —under immense diplomatic pressure from the British government, which was forced to act by a sustained public and media campaign, is a case in point.

The three Britons were held in Saudi jails for more than two years and confessed, allegedly after torture, to plotting a series of bomb attacks in Riyadh in 2000 and 2001. According to Saudi Arabian Shariah law, the three Britons faced possible death, if convicted. Certainly Britain is not like Sri Lanka. There is much quid-pro-quo that shapes Britain-Saudi relations. Britain could negotiate and save its citizens from death and the Saudis could stop a British government probe on bribes allegedly paid by British Aerospace to Saudi royal families. But what lever has Sri Lanka got? Perhaps, we can hold out a threat, saying we will stop the supply of housemaids —an act that will probably deal a blow to the lifestyle of Saudi families that exploit our poor women, many of whom return with tales of woes that tarnish the image of Islam. But the truth is we can’t.

There was only a tepid expression of concern by the new minister of foreign affairs, Rohitha Bogollagama, while Foreign Employment Promotion and welfare minister Keheliya Rambukwella said "a hue and cry could not be made over the actions of the Saudi authorities as they were carried out under its domestic laws."

The government seems to forget the fact that one of the four Sri Lankans was not sentenced to death. But he was executed along with others in a travesty of justice. Who should be hanged for killing the Sri Lankan who was given only a 15-year jail term?

It was not the government but the New York-based Human Rights Watch which highlighted this horrendous mistake first. Imagine, an American or a Briton was beheaded by mistake.

This exposes the powerlessness of our diplomacy vis-à-vis the rich and powerful. We cannot remain powerless and allow our citizens to be treated like toilet tissue —use and discard. We can learn a lesson from Mexico which is confronting the mighty United States to save one of its citizens from the death row. Jose Medellin was convicted of gang rape of a young girl in Texas. The Medellin case is now before the US Supreme Court which is hearing arguments on whether US courts must enforce the country’s treaty obligations that ensure foreign nationals in prisons are permitted access to diplomats from their home country. Mexico was able to use the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and its optional protocol before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to stay the execution of Jose Medellin on the basis that the Untied States had failed to honour its treaty obligations and grant access for Mexican diplomats to meet the suspect.

The Medellin case is a classic example where poor developing countries could use international law to challenge powerful countries. But the sad reality is not only Saudi Arabia but Sri Lanka is also not a signatory to the optional protocol of the Vienna Convention.

Ameen Izzadeen is a Sri Lankan journalist based in Colombo

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