Hang him – NOT – let him go!

By N Sathiya Moorthy

By presiding over the destruction of massive drugs seized by law-enforcers in recent years, and declaring that he had cleared the list of the first batch of those who have to hang for drug-offences from the past, President Maithripala Sirisena has succeeded in taking his one-man battle to enemy territories. More to the point, he has taken it to multiple enemy territories, so to say.

If nothing else, his invocation of death-for-drugs has got the right reaction from the expected, overseas quarters. Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have taken note of the presidential declarations and decisions in this regard faster than expected – maybe because unlike other Government decisions on other matters, Sirisena has moved faster on this one.

This should include not only development projects but also death-inquiries of the ‘war-crimes probe’ kind about with AI and HRW kind of global outfits concern themselves even more with. The quick question arises if the likes of them do not want death for drugs, what would they want for ‘war crimes probe’ of a local or global kind, a la UNHRC 30/1 or 40/1?

Two, and closer home, Sirisena has gone to the people over the head of the existing polity, where he is the weakest human-link, compared to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Opposition’s Mahinda Rajapaksa. His drug-destruction shows did attract good crowds and not necessarily of the political kind. The list included the one that he presided over at Mattakkuliya, or those that sprung up all around.

Maybe, this was one instance where the law-enforcing agencies seemed to be acting on their freewill without interference from the political leadership of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. Or, it was/is possible that Sirisena has taken up an issue, where the wily Wickremesinghe is at a loss for words and ideas to handle him.

The less said about the Rajapaksas the better. They have thus far ignored or over-looked the Sirisena initiative. However, they could continue to remain passive or non-cooperative only at the peril of their losing a sizable segment of their ‘Buddhist conservative’ votes. Less said about centre-right JHU and possibly even the centre-left JVP the worse off they could soon be if they wanted to keep their eyes closed, still.

Damned, if right…

By imaginatively choosing an issue where not only PM Wickremesinghe and his UNP but also their purported western allies cannot be caught on the wrong foot, Sirisena in effect has set the cat among the pigeons. Or, is it the other way round? Considering that the West, especially the US, claim to be eternal victims of global drug-cartel in terms of affected citizens, they cannot be seen as joining the AI and HRW in condemning the Sirisena initiative.

Extending the line of argument after a time, if they were to protest a la INGOs on life-and-death issues of the kind, Sirisena first and a section of the larger Sri Lankan polity may end up challenging them on ‘war-crimes probe’ too, using their own arguments, if offered.

It is not only that the international community would be damned if they stick to one line on death-for-drugs issue. They would be damned even otherwise. Having refused to take any note of it at all – serious or otherwise – over the past few months when Sirisena was active on this score, they cannot push their own luck too far.

If nothing else, there aren’t any westerner known to be in Sri Lankan prison now, facing death-for-drugs. If there is any, Sirisena’s cleared list of condemned prisoners who have to hang in the coming weeks and months have not been made known. If not for drugs, extending the Sirisena code to cover, other crimes where Sri Lankan courts have ordered death sentence, now or later one or many of their citizens could end up facing the rope, and in Sri Lanka.

The question will then arise if they would want Sri Lanka to ‘hang him – not let him go’ or ‘hang him not – let him go’.  Unlike on war-crimes probe, they would have to take a far-reaching decision on Sri Lanka’s revival of death-for-drugs now, as they cannot be seen as being selective on this score, now and/or later.

Religiously yours

Sri Lanka is one country where death sentence remains on the statute book. Courts have also continued to impose death sentence on criminals who deserved it, or who have earned it. But citing majority Buddhist religion’s philosophy, the Government has kept suspending the same through presidential pardon, for over four decades now.

Suffice is to point out that the nation does not have a hangman now, and is interviewing 47 persons for the two positions of hangman that has been created since. According to news reports, the selected would then have to be sent to other nations for ‘training’ on how to use the noose. No electric-chairs or poison-potions, whether forcibly pushed down the throat or injected – but only hanging, please.

The question would remain if the Buddhist Sangha would want to pray for the body or the soul, if the Government continued with President Sirisena’s commitment and drive on the death-for-drug initiative. Again, it would be a thin-line that religious heads could well be walking if they were to take a public position.

If they needed a contemporary precedent, the President’s Mattakkuliya initiative of destroying 800 kg of seized drugs at one go was accompanied by smaller events of the kind in which the nation’s Catholic Church enthusiastically associated with – or, so goes media reports. If true, not only the West but also other religious institutions nearer home would find it difficult to associate with anti-death protests, especially for drug-offences.

Obligations, but…

There is no denying that Sri Lanka is a signatory to international obligations against death-penalty and the like. Right or wrong, the greater obligation for the Sri Lankan State, it could well be argued by the pro-death lobby, was to protect the nation and its citizenry from offensive methods of the drug-abuse kind.

Indications are that more than many drug-abusers in the country, most drugs that land in the country are for onward transhipment to other nations. The question may arise that the end of terrorist LTTE may have eased the pressures on the security forces/agencies to keep a close watch on the movement of goods and services across the seas and by air, but then barring the early days, the LTTE too was believed to have stopped dealing in drugs to promote their cause. That was also a deterrent that is not available now.

For now, President Sirisena has declared to end drug-menace in a few months. Whether he succeeds in it or not, he might have put in motion a process that would be hard to stop by future governments and leaders, as it now has developed a momentum of its own. There would be greater momentum and identification with the cause as and when the first of the drug-offenders kisses the noose for one last time – sooner than later.

If left undisturbed, Sirisena’s initiative is bound to capture the imagination, especially of the nation’s womenfolk. The morally high-sounding civil society organisations are already at a loss to take a position – for or against. Some of them seem wanting to wait until their own gods had spoken from the high heavens before they could take a position, and take up a cause – either way, on this one issue as on many others before it, and also after it.

In the interim, local political players would be quietly and with a lot of disquiet otherwise, be watching the future of Sirisena drive. They may not have the guts or ideas to drive it out of public memory, at least over the immediate short-term, but they would want it pass by long before the presidential poll, which is anyway due not long from now – in December, to be precise. But will it go away as easily and as fast as they all would wish?

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)

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