The sentencing of a Sri Lankan maid in Saudi Arabia to be killed for sleeping with the wrong man was a reminder to all Sri Lankans of the terrible risks involved in having the death penalty on the statute book.
Last week’s anniversary of the coming to power of President Sirisena’s government was rightly highlighted across the country. But 9 January was also an anniversary of a different more grisly event.
In 2013, Rizana Nafeek was beheaded by the Saudi Arabian authorities. She lost her life on the basis of a confession, which she claimed was coerced, and which she may not even have understood. Her birth certificate showed her to have been 17 at the time of the alleged offence. We do not know if Rizana was guilty or innocent. But we do know that were she to be exonerated, there is no way of bringing her back.
Many other innocent people will also not be coming back. Since the reintroduction of the death penalty in the United States of America in 1973, it is reckoned that 156 people have been sentenced to death who were subsequently exonerated. That is more than 10% of the number of the people executed in the United States during that period – 1,423.
At least in the United States, for all the imperfections of the justice system, these cases are examined and the details recorded. And, in some cases, people released before it is too late.
Imagine how many innocent people die every year in the regimes of Saudi Arabia, Iran, North Korea and China where the standards of due process are much lower and the time between sentencing and execution can be a matter of days.
We cannot know any figures, but Amnesty International estimates in 2014 than China executed more than 1000 people; Iran more than 289; Saudi Arabia 89 (though this has risen steeply in 2015 and stands at 47 for 2016 already). Figures for North Korea are not available, but the United Nations Human Rights Council have determined that the level of judicial murders rises to the level of crimes against humanity.
The European Union has been a consistent advocate of the abolition of the death penalty in all countries and for all crimes. Capital punishment is cruel, inhumane and degrading and has never been proven to act as a deterrent.
Evidence shows that the death penalty is disproportionately targeted at minorities, the poor and immigrant communities – people less able to have a voice and speak out for themselves, which is one reason why it demands that the rest of us state our unequivocal opposition to it.
Sri Lanka last executed a person in 1976. This year, in 2016, there is a historic opportunity for Sri Lankans to join the majority of countries around the world who have consigned the death penalty to the history books once and for all.
The Government’s announcement of a new Constitution provides an opportunity to enshrine the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which the right to life is a cornerstone, as the birth right of all Sri Lankans. That is a legacy this Government could leave that would be cherished by generations of Sri Lankans.
(The writer is Deputy Head of the Delegation of the European Union to Sri Lanka and the Maldives.)