Call for Capital Punishment as a Marker of Sri Lanka’s Trajectory in the Consciousness of Rights and Marginality

The call for a re-implement of the noose for selected “crimes” gives an indication as to how rights and marginality in Sri Lanka, at present, are considered. Rather than correcting the deteriorated legal and police mechanisms and curbing on nepotism and tampering of the legal process, the politicos’ rant to re-activate the noose at large is a menace to the disempowered / less powerful citizen subject.

Over the week, there were several news sources which announced of a petition being addressed to the president, pointing out the need to re-implement the capital punishment for child molesters, rapists and drug pushers. This, I see as a more predictable petition / plea in the heat of International Women’s Day, which was chartered for last week. The “Ceylon Today”, in its Tuesday’s edition, had in fact recorded some statements from a series of “female activists” of sorts regarding this induction. Minister Sudarshani Fernandopulle, for instance, had expressed her confidence that the thirteen member female contingent of the Sri Lankan parliament would unequivocally support this move. Out of the six interviewed by the paper, it is intriguing to note that except for one activist – a lawyer – the others had unreservedly stated that the “noose” should wag for the threefold category in question.

Whether the capital punishment is justifiable or not is a familiar debate topic one inevitably ends up opposing or speaking for, during high school. But, what is even more intriguing is when people who have ended up in high ranking public offices – the pillars of society, per se – end up speaking in childish prattle about issues that concern people’s lives and deaths. The general opinion against rapists and child molesters go unopposed – neither of these “offenses” are by any means accepted by the norms by which “civilized” community runs. Yet, there are codes of “civilized” conduct by which the mechanisms of such communities are bound by; where its duty and obligation to its collective citizenry is at the call. The rapist, the child molester and drug pusher, too, in spite of their “option of wrong” are bound by the same constitution that deals with the rest of us.

Extermination of a “rapist” – judicially or otherwise – is no “civilized” or responsible way of negotiating with a misconduct. One speaker to the “Ceylon Today” had expressed without any compromise that a rapist should not be returned to society. “And why not?” is the fundamental question one may pose at the opinion-giver. It is baffling to note why one is hateful, uncompromising and stubbornly reluctant to allow a rehabilitation option; but, to fuss over for a mortally destructive course.

The viability of the “death penalty” was yet again heard a few weeks before the International Women’s Day. This was at the governmental carnival, “Deyata Kirula”. Here, too, several media sources carried as their news a “public opinion” (of those who were at the exhibition premises in record numbers) to the effect that the capital punishment should be re-introduced as effective. One can disregard the views collected at a propagandist exhibition, as collected from a faceless general mass, but not so the voice that comes from organized agencies of the civil community and from public offices. But, in general, it can be surmised that a “general air” in favour of the gallows is being propagated and is being promoted as fair.

The humanitarian appeal – an appeal that is seldom heeded by the growing fangs of totalitarianism – aside, we as school students, would argue that the capital punishment is too “grave” and too “risky” a punishment to offer an offender. The inquiries, the court procedures, the collection of evidence etc are always impeded by the infallible tendency to go “wrong”. The school boy’s argument was “what if the system got it wrong and an innocent man was convicted”? I am reminded of the 2003 movie, “The Life of David Gail”. The plot relates to a group of activists against the capital punishment in Austin, Texas. One of their ex-activists, Professor David Gail, is facing death roll for rape and homicide. He is accused to killing (after raping) his colleague Constance Harroway.

Gail’s case raises numerous cries from the mass community. Some, like our petitioners who are ready to kindle the sympathies of the president, condemn Gail who, by now, has ruined his career, marriage and is an alcoholic. Finally, Gail is put to death – but, following his execution it is dramatically revealed that Gail’s death was a “set up”; that Gail himself, along with other ardent abolitionist believers, had set the state up, to prove that mistakes do happen; and that they are detrimental.

Besides, rather than resorting to extreme measures that would cost lives and provide no “undo” options, much can still be down to upgrade the ground conditions in minimizing crime. It is always marketable to come up with extreme mechanisms – machines that, on the long run, cannot be reversed as easily as they are implemented – but a policy being entertained for initiation should not be populist nor should it be exclusive in spirit. The capital punishment, then, as proposed in the discussion under study, is for three types of offenses – but on what basis are these to be singled out? What is the relevance, then, again, of bringing into the formula “drug peddlers”?

There is very little benefit in collecting a divine nectar in a cracked mug. Even if one is to hope for some form of retardation in crime by re-orienting the noose at large, with so many loop holes and gaping irregularities in the “crime combat” bodies and procedures one cannot expect any profitable outcome from these high handed projects. The Police – the chief agent through whom crime management is expected – is neither independent nor at all times responsible. The military forces are becoming a more pronounced buffer – a interim social layer, if you like – between the rule-making elite VIP and the common subjects of their rules.

The most detrimental flaw of the age (perhaps it was always the case) is that the law is not equal to all. Perhaps, in theory and in statement the law, as embossed, is egalitarian. Yet, the mechanisms through which the law is channeled and courtesy of various political and social privileges the political class, their proxies and those patronized by them seldom become the objects of the legal process. The rule-implementor, then, first has to iron out the ground conditions on which humans are tested by the constitutional allowances. One cannot have a VIP rapist being “bypassed” by an investigation team – a basic premise of a legal process – whereas some other innocent fellow who is forced to confess and own up to a “crime” under duress be condemned to a sentence.

The correlation people make of crime rate and the (lack of) capital punishment is dubious and inconsistent. To argue that the states where the gallows is yet in force enjoy a more peaceful, rape-free, tranquil social scape is a trivialization. What we, for convenience, call rape, child abuse and homicide have a definite psychological angle which the hangman’s friends prefer not to see. In other words, the criminal would strike where he wills – for the demotivation to crime (as it is hinted would be the case if the noose is brought within society’s horizon) would always already be neutralized by a compelling motivator such as poverty, hunger, lust or recreation.

What I have to offer any would-be petitioner or champion of the gallows is a counter petition to sober down. The hangman was evicted from most modern societies decades ago – for the bases of modern social exchange (in spirit) draws from the wells of freedom, expression, rights and ethics. It is insufficient to imprint in bold lettering on the walls of Welikada: “Prisoners are human”. Of course they are – there is no debate on that. But, so should be the wielder of the magic wand of power. Human they have to be in spirit and policy; as well as forgiving, for human nature would repeatedly err.

Nor are the women’s general condition or the position of children be any better — for, those who commit “crimes” against these vulnerable and remain unpunished or unaccounted for are often with high political backing and patronage. The same goes for the peddling and distribution of drugs in the country. As news reports and crimes investigations repeatedly show the top barons and mafia figures are, at some point, often short circuited to the establishment. Therefore, before laying in danger the life of “any of us” who, upon the whim of power’s irresponsible reach, can be made to pay with life, to sincerely dry clean one’s own back would be more profitable for the sustaining and the protection of rights at large.

[Carried by the Lakbima News; 2011-03-18]

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