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Thoughts on the death penalty for hardened criminals


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By Dr. A.C. Visvalingam

Those who argue that implementing the death penalty for serious crimes would act as a deterrent against others who might want to commit such crimes are almost certainly mistaken. The reality is that a person who wants to commit a premeditated crime does so after careful study and in the confident belief that he will be able to do things in such a meticulously planned manner that he will not get caught. Thus the question of being deterred by the possibility of being apprehended and executed does not arise.  

When it comes to a consideration of the implementation of the death sentence, there are those whose religious beliefs about not taking another’s life compel them to oppose the ultimate penalty without any reference to its deterrent effect or otherwise. However, their position is more often than not self-contradictory regarding this question because most of them would not hesitate to cheer on their armed forces to shoot, bomb or otherwise destroy enemies in order to support the State. 

This being so, the cry that we have no right to take another’s life, even after the most stringent investigational and judicial processes have been employed, is just plain hypocritical. One cannot help speculating as to whether their solicitousness for the condemned is not motivated, in the final analysis, by their anxiety to make certain of their own paths to heaven, paradise, moksha, nirvana or whatever else might be their goal. 

Religion is a personal matter and it must be kept well separated from politics. Decisions taken for the maintenance of law and order, the integrity of the country and other matters of State should be done on the basic of day to day practicalities keeping in mind the fundamental and human rights of individual citizens. If we are foolish enough to bring religion into it, what are the religious norms that would have to be followed? Surely, it would not be democratic to force the views of any one religion on the followers of other faiths? 

The simple answer is to have a strongly secular Constitution and let legislators practice their respective religions in their own time and at their own expense without trying to tie down the State unilaterally. If this neutrality is attained, the question of hanging vile criminals or not can be taken without allowing callous, opportunistic politicians to exploit the support of bigots and extremists of the varying types who seem to flourish particularly well at present.  

Having regard to Sri Lanka’s alleged majoritarian commitment to safeguarding the sanctity of life, one is reminded of the story that, centuries ago, the Maha Sangha had assured a Buddhist prince that it was no sin to kill Tamil enemies because Tamils were not “human”! Why not add murderers, rapists and drug-dealers to this classification and, perhaps, get the Tamils out of it? 

Right at the outset, it is necessary to accept that, quite apart from the pressure from our own liberal intellectuals, countries such as Canada, the EU, Norway, UK and several others would strongly oppose Sri Lanka carrying out judicial killings. They are already pressurising us by their quite open “threat” of the withdrawal of the financial and other types of assistance that they extend to us from time to time. However, this does not mean that independent citizens of this country have to leave their considered opinions and rational thoughts on this subject unexpressed.

Over many years, the informal opinions that have been sought by CIMOGG on this subject have been overwhelmingly in favour of implementing the death penalty for rape, murder or being a member of an organisation that smuggles in hard drugs and gets the young and impressionable part of the population addicted. In getting to their goals, criminals of these types do not hesitate to resort to personal violence, killings and the large-scale purchasing of protection from powerful politicians and the law-enforcement authorities to get their vile businesses flourishing. 

It is our firm conviction that, with the rarest of exceptions, those who deal intensively in the import, distribution and sale of drugs would not have the faintest wish to be reformed because what they do is so lucrative that they cannot see themselves doing anything else equally attractive. The possibility that there may have been one drug lord somewhere who has now been redeemed and has become a good citizen is so far from being real that it must be taken as an axiom that any leader who has been running a drug-running operation or who has been an integral part of such an operation for more than a few years is too far gone in the business of building up and protecting such operations as to be incapable of adjusting to a law-abiding life.

We are informed periodically by our rightfully apprehensive media that certain powerful gangsters not only run their operations from overseas but also from within prisons where a few of their senior “executive assistants” are now held after conviction. The real masters of those in prison not only ensure that the families of these “executive assistants” are handsomely looked after but also bribe and simultaneously threaten the prison authorities to provide forbidden facilities to these inmates such as communication equipment, special foods, drinks and secretly arranged leave to go outside once in a while. From their cells, these “executive assistants” continue to control the lower levels of the drug lords’ organisations, which usually remain substantially intact and are invariably used to threaten the parents, siblings, spouses and children of prison officials to get whatever favourable treatment is sought by these privileged prisoners.  

It is one thing to show some consideration for a man who has committed murder under severe provocation but to equate to this recklessness the activities of a ruthless gang-leader who routinely and cold-bloodedly kills his competitors’ personnel, informants, their family members and law-enforcement personnel is not even remotely acceptable. Why should the average citizen’s taxes be consumed for long years to house, feed, clothe and medically look after totally unscrupulous and incorrigible criminals during long periods of imprisonment? Why should society incur huge infrastructural and administrative expenditures to prevent their escape instead of saving these moneys and spending them on helping the victims of these criminals? 

It is, of course, essential that lawful procedures have been followed, with thorough oversight measures in place, before one decides that a particular criminal has been properly convicted of such grave, premeditated crimes as to deserve to be sentenced to death. To maintain a measure of balanced judgment, we should ask ourselves whether these criminals would have shown any mercy at all to anyone that opposed their felonious activities. Surely not. 

We need to remember that the death penalty is being implemented even today in many countries such as China, India, Russia and the USA. They do not care a hoot for what Canada, the EU, Norway, UK and other “liberal” countries have to say. An interesting thing to remember in this connection is that these liberal countries took more or less one or two centuries to give up their reliance on the death penalty to keep criminals under control. It is only as they became steadily richer that their affluence enabled them to have more efficient crime detection and control. 

In this connection, we may mention that Holland has been closing down some of its prisons because the amount of crime has been reduced progressively by really efficient law enforcement. This is a luxury that Sri Lanka will not be able to afford for a few decades more so as to be able to do away with the death penalty altogether; but certainly not just yet. 

The Government must argue that desperate situations require desperate remedies and ask for more time from our donor countries to improve our crime prevention and detection systems and allow us meanwhile to get rid of the really hardened criminals who are running their drug-dealing empires with the present intolerable degree of impunity. 

 (The writer is President, CIMOGG, and can be reached via email at acvisva@gmail.com.)


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