Sri Lankan President Signs Death Warrants For Drug Offenders

By Paul Gaita 07/05/19

Sri Lanka's decision to lift a 43-year moratorium on the death penalty has been met with opposition by world leaders. 

Sri Lankan president Maithripala Sirisena
Sri Lankan president Maithripala Sirisena Photo via YouTube

Death sentences for four individuals convicted of drug-related charges were issued by Sri Lankan president Maithripala Sirisena on June 26, prompting an appeal from the UN Secretary-General that was ultimately rejected.

Political observers and members of Sirisena's own cabinet have criticized the decision, which media sources have reported as being motivated by his upcoming re-election, though Sirisena has said that his goal is to thwart drug trafficking in his country.  

Possible Appeal

Legal challenges to the sentences have already been filed, and while Sirisena has said that the four accused individuals can appeal their convictions, he also noted that they have already decided the date of the execution.

At a meeting in Sri Lanka's largest city, Colombo, Sirisena told reporters that he had "already signed the death penalty" for the four individuals. He did not give the names of the four alleged offenders or a specific date for their executions beyond saying that they will be "implemented soon."

He also said that the decision to reinstate the death penalty, which had been on moratorium in Sri Lanka for 43 years, was a move to protect the "nation and the future generation from the drug menace, which is our worst social catastrophe."  

The New York Post noted that support for the death penalty has increased among Sri Lankans and earned the backing of several religious leaders, though political commentators were quick to add that Sirisena's motives may lie more in improving his chances for re-election, which will take place later in 2019.

"He is trying to protect himself like the Philippines president [Rodrigo Duerte]," columnist Kusal Perera told Reuters. "But I doubt whether it is enough. It won't give him much political mileage now."

The decision drew considerable opposition from world leaders, including UN Secretary-General António Guterres, but Sirisena said that he told Guterres in a telephone conversation to "please allow me to stamp out the drug menace."

World Leaders Oppose The Decision

The United Kingdom, European Union (EU) and Canada, as well as human rights groups like Amnesty International, all issued strongly worded condemnations of Sirisena's decision, with the EU adding that the reinstatement of the death penalty would be a direct contradiction of Sri Lanka's commitment to maintain its moratorium on executions in 2018.

The country's ruling political faction, the United National Party, issued its own condemnation, which declared that reinstating the death penalty would be "economic sabotage" and not befitting a "civilized country." Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is a member of the United National Party, also said that a majority of parliament members were opposed to the decision.

The move to revive the death penalty also faces several legal challenges from non-governmental organizations like the Centre for Policy Alternatives, which filed a case with the Sri Lankan Supreme Court on July 1. But plans to carry out the executions appear to have gone ahead as planned, with the Justice Ministry reporting that 26 candidates have been shortlisted for the job of executioner. The previous official hangman left his post in 2014, and his three replacements have all left the position after brief tenures.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.