By Feizal Samath
What do Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena have in common?
Both believe the death sentence for drug trafficking will reduce the use of illegal drugs. And both are mobilizing the military to crack down on drug traffickers.
A decision last month by Sirisena’s cabinet to reinstate capital punishment for drug traffickers came three days after Sri Lankan police seized a record haul of heroin worth nearly $8 million.
While the politician may hope the cabinet decision shores up his political standing ahead of crucial elections, human rights groups have denounced the strong-arm tactic as ineffective and inhumane. And the European Union has threatened to punish Sri Lanka economically.
This year, anti-narcotics police in Sri Lanka have seized increased amounts of illegal drugs as part of a crackdown on dealers, including some directing sales from inside of prisons.
The big heroin haul last month prompted Sirisena’s cabinet to re-impose capital punishment for drug traffickers and to approve a proposal for a special law allowing the military to join police in combating drug dealing.
While capital punishment is legal in Sri Lanka, no one has been put to death since 1976. Any order to impose the death penalty would have to be signed by the president.
Political connections and help from law enforcement
Even some members of Sirisena’s cabinet criticized the move. “I am opposed to the death penalty, but I supported it as a collective cabinet decision,” Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera said.
The head of the government’s Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka issued a letter to the president condemning the cabinet’s move and urging the government to implement long-term policies to address drug dealing, including using technology to curb convicted drug dealers’ contacts with the outside world.
Deepika Udagama said major drug dealers had been helped “through political connections and also from certain elements within the law enforcement establishment.”
Amnesty International called on Sri Lanka to pull back from its plan and to preserve its positive record in shunning capital punishment, while the EU denounced the plan and threatened to withdraw preferential tariffs for Sri Lanka’s exports to the EU.
Human rights activists see the cabinet’s move on capital punishment as a means for the president to shore up support. Sirisena has been facing a revolt by some of his own supporters including several former ministers who have turned to ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
A new political party led by Rajapaksa, Sirisena’s one-time ally but now arch political rival, made inroads into the current president’s voter base in local council elections last May. Sri Lanka is due to hold provincial council elections later this year followed by presidential elections by around December 2019.
Rajapaksa has picked up political momentum in recent months as the government struggles to control rising prices and corruption.
“Just political rhetoric”
In recent years, Sri Lanka has reaped international praise for not resorting to capital punishment. Between 2005 and 2013, the island nation pleaded with Saudi authorities to lift a death sentence on a Sri Lankan maid who in 2005 was minding a child who accidentally suffocated to death.
Saudi Arabia ignored the plea and executed the maid in early 2013.
It’s not clear whether the government will actually resort to capital punishment. Over the past four decades, governments have re-imposed the death penalty at least three times, only to back down in the face of local and international pressure.
Anton Marcus, a well-known Sri Lankan trade union leader, called the cabinet decision “just political rhetoric.”
Marcus’s organization defends worker rights in the country’s free trade zones and has spearheaded a drive to restore preferential tariffs for Sri Lankan exports to Europe. He said the EU should be pushing Sri Lanka to adopt policies protecting freedom of association and collective bargaining.
“The EU, instead of raising their voice on the death penalty, should make sure the government is sticking to its side of the bargain in return for preferential tax concessions,” he said, adding that the death penalty has been proven in many countries to be ineffective in reducing crime.
Feizal Samath covered the war between Tamil Tiger guerrillas and Sri Lankan troops, and the leftist insurgency attempting to overthrow the government, for Reuters. A journalist for nearly four decades, he more recently has covered economic development in Sri Lanka for a newspaper in Colombo. A social activist and guitarist, he founded a concert series that has raised millions of rupees for children’s charities.