Independent police and judicial commissions before the return of the hangman

Whether the death penalty should be imposed or not has been the subject for essays at the GCE-O levels (for older generations the SSC) down the years. Thus, Sri Lankans will be well aware of the pros and cons of bringing back the death penalty as has been recently proposed by the Peoples Alliance. It must however be noted that there does seem to be some reluctance on the part of the PA government to bring back the hangman. A private members motion calling for the restoration of the death penalty immediately after the government came in 1994 did not get the backing of the PA government. Then in 1997, the PA government declared its intention of restoring the death penalty and now the Peoples Alliance general secretary has announced the party’s decision to bring it back.

Be it a reflex action on the part of the PA government to seek refuge in the hangman when it does not have an answer to the rising wave of crime, violence and terrorism or not, when considering the restoration of capital punishment, it is absolutely essential to consider whether the prevailing police and judicial machinery are capable to see that justice is done. The possibility of the horrendous mistake of an innocent man being sent to the gallows has to be avoided at all costs.

Even in stable societies where law and order of a very high standard is maintained with a professional police force and a highly competent and independent judiciary, there have been instances of innocent suspects being convicted for long terms of imprisonment and the mistake discovered or admitted only after long years of incarceration. Thus, the present state of the police force, the efficiency of the judicial system, the politicisation of government machinery and the law and order situation of the country need deep study before the imposition of capital punishment is considered.

The criminalisation of politicians, politicisation of the police and subsequent criminalisation of some policemen in recent years is an acknowledged fact. The best example of this phenomenon was revealed in evidence before a presidential commission where a well known political thug and criminal who was under the patronage of a former president, was respected and feared by the officer-in-charge of a Colombo police station to the extent that the police officer saluted the criminal when he visited the police station! This happened over a decade ago but the nexus between politicians, police and criminals has not undergone very much of change. Thus, there is the very likelihood of political opponents of ruling party politicians being framed by the police, even for murder charges.

The only bulwark against this frightening alignment of corrupt forces is the judiciary. By and large the judiciary has maintained very high standards and displayed sturdy independence. But it is a well-known fact that standards are deteriorating, particularly among some in the lower rungs and there are accusations of political patronage at high levels. At times the power of the judiciary is limited such as in cases where the accused are produced before magistrates. The magistrates have no option but to remand such accused when the police claim that ‘investigations are proceeding’. A suspect may remain in remand for months in such situations and are finally released only if and when the Attorney General’s Department says that there is no evidence to charge the accused. In recent times there have been many such instances where suspects have been remanded but released without any charge being made.

Conditions in remand prisons are atrocious and some suspects are held for months without being charged. Those not used to such harsh conditions end up as broken persons both physically and mentally. This is one aspect Minister of Justice Mr. Batty Weerakoon, who has stood for the down trodden throughout his political career, should look into.

The law and order situation has deteriorated much since the death penalty was suspended when President Jayewardene so decided in 1977. The homicide rate and terrorist killings have increased so much that the hangman is likely to have a 24-hour turn of duty.

While deterrent punishment is called for, every precaution should be taken to see that no innocent person be sent to the gallows. In these circumstances it is essential that independent police and judicial commissions be set up first and political interference and influence in these fields be completely eliminated before capital punishment is imposed. The PA and the UNP have agreed in the draft constitution for the establishment of such independent commissions. Mr. Rauff Hakeem of the SLMC has demanded that such commissions including an independent elections commission be established within 100 days of the government assuming office. Mr. Hakeem is in a position to make his demands but whether he will do so or eat humble pie, as in the case of the appointment of the deputy minister of defence, is to be seen.

If the hangman is to return, let us have an independent police commission and an independent judicial commission before his appointment.

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