Sri Lanka plans to use the death penalty and Catholics are campaigning against it

Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena during a diplomatic visit to Russia in 2017. Photo by the Kremlin.

Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena during a diplomatic visit to Russia in 2017. Photo by the Kremlin.

Christian leaders in Sri Lanka, though a minority, are one of the strongest voices opposing President Maithripala Sirisena’s decision to revive the death penalty in the country, arguing that capital punishment violates human dignity and is inadmissible in the eyes of God.

Sirisena ordered the execution of four drug offenders on June 26, ending a 43-year prohibition on executions in the country, which is still recovering from the end of a decades-long civil war between Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamil Hindus in 2009.

Skeptics believe that Sirisena’s move is aimed at presidential elections scheduled to happen at the end of this year. After Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka this year killed more than 250 people, Sirisena’s leadership has come under sharp attack. Sirisena announced the executions after visiting the Philippines, where he praised their president Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs that has cracked down on Catholic dissent and resulted in the deaths of more than 27,000 people, according to Human Rights Watch.

“President Sirisena’s decision to restore the death penalty because he was inspired by the Philippine’s murderous ‘drug war’ may be the worst possible justification and would violate international law,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in an online statement.

Sri Lanka’s Catholic Church is campaigning firmly against the decision. Some of its members, along with academicians and rights activists, have filed petitions in the Supreme Court challenging the president’s order.

“Catholic social teaching states clearly that the death penalty stands in violation of human dignity,” said Sister Rasika Pieris, member of the Sisters of the Holy Family, and one of the petitioners. “As a Catholic, I strongly feel that the inherent dignity of a human is created in the image and likeness of God who does not permit anyone to take away someone’s life.” 

The apex court has stayed the executions till Oct. 30.

The church has issued statements signed by all the bishops of the country opposing the executions.

“The Catholic Church in Sri Lanka has taken the position that the death penalty should not be brought back in Sri Lanka under any circumstances,” said Archbishop of Columbo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith. “Life is the most beautiful gift that a person can receive from God and every single life is precious even in the case of criminals.”

Sri Lankan Buddhists, about 70 percent of the population, are not united by doctrine and remain murky on the death penalty. Some monks have supported executions. In a statement issued last month, the president said that the leading Buddhist monk Omalpe Sobitha had advised him to resume hangings and not to abandon his war on narcotics fearing criticism.

“The core teachings of Buddhism are being violated by some of the Buddhist clergies who are supporting the death penalty as a solution to the challenges we are facing in the society,” said Suchith Abeyewickreme, a peace educator and social activist in Sri Lanka. “We are a country which has seen a long period of conflict, so such measures, like the death penalty, are seen as quick fixes which are against religious teachings. The violence has become so normalized that religious leaders have come to support capital punishment.”

He also said that as a Buddhist he believes in redemption.

“There are times when a person, convicted of a crime, redeems himself after serving a sentence in prison,” Abeyewickreme  said. “Capital punishment kills all such possibilities.”

Abeyewickreme said that the president is trying to use this issue for political mileage. It’s an attempt to boost his image as a strong leader ahead of the elections.

The Vatican’s intervention

The president’s order to revive executions contradicts his government’s support to the UN resolutions for a moratorium on the death penalty in 2016 and 2018.

In July last year, Cardinal Ranjith had drawn sharp criticism after he supported the president’s plan to revive executions in the country. Though the Archbishop said that he supported the death penalty only in select cases, many Christians felt that he was going against the views of Pope Francis, who strongly opposes executions happening around the world. 

“At an initial stage, I followed the former Catholic Catechism, the unmodified version, and supported the use of (capital) punishment on very specific and exceptional cases, such as with criminals who, while being on death row, use the prisons to organize drug sales and murders outside in an act whereby they openly ridicule the law of the land without any sense of repentance,” Ranjith said.

Less than two weeks after his statement to support executions, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) announced a revision of Church teachings, stating categorically that the death penalty is inadmissible and unnecessary even when used to protect the lives of innocent people.

After the revision, the Archbishop changed his position. “Going along with the latest modification of the Catechism by His Holiness Pope Francis, I fully endorsed the new stance that the death penalty should not be carried out even under those circumstances.  Life is sacred and needs to be safeguarded always,” he said.

A history against death penalty

Although criminals in Sri Lanka are regularly given capital punishment for murder, rape, and drug-related crimes, the country has a history of not executing any prisoner on death row since 1976. The sentences are commuted to life imprisonment instead.

However, President Sirisena has been campaigning in favor of reviving executions for the past few years. He supported his order of executing four drug offenders on death row by calling it a needed step to clamp down on the rampant narcotics trade in the country.

Questioning the efficacy of capital punishment, Ruki Fernando, member of the Justice & Peace Commission of Catholic Religious Superiors in Sri Lanka, said, “There is no evidence in Sri Lanka, or in other countries, that the death penalty has reduced crime by having a deterrent effect.”

“It not only kills a convict but also the possibilities that human beings can be reformed –  important teaching of the Bible,” he added.

On the idea of execution as a deterrent, Sister Pieris said that the death penalty is not a solution to the existing problems, for the existing problems emerges out of institutionalized injustice.

“It is not a deterrent,” she said. “Rather, it directs the vital resources away from addressing the root cause of the crime.”

Criticizing the president’s decision, the EU said in a statement that the move is against the country's commitment to maintaining a 43-year ban on the death penalty at the UN General Assembly last year. It also said that Sri Lanka's planned executions will send the wrong signals to the international community and investors.

Although the move has been criticized by many Sri Lankans, including Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has also introduced a bill in the parliament to end the death penalty in the country, some believe that it is required to deter people from committing serious crimes.

“It’s right to give convicts a chance to reform, but to what extent?” asked Aslam Othman, President of the Colombo District Masjid Federation. “Our country is being infested with narcotics business, and there comes a time when you have to take strong actions to control the vices increasing in society.”