Cumulus Clouds shroud the Death Penalty in Sri Lanka

Gerald H Peiris, in Island, 8 July 2019, where the title is “To Hang or Not to Hang?: Our Heads in Shame”

Our press coverage of the ‘Capital Punishment’ debate that followed President Sirisena’s announcement on 26 June of his signing death warrants on four persons convicted for serious narcotic-related crimes – I refer to ‘Features’, ‘Opinions’, news reports such as those on intimidatory “orders” conveyed to the government of Sri Lanka by foreign diplomats and spokespersons of INGOs, decisions of trade unions and other civil society outfits, and the seemingly casual statements by political leaders in the course of censuring the president’s wayward performance −  provided no cause for surprise in the sense that they were the expected responses. For instance, those from the regimes of the sanctimonious agents of the ‘West’ and their INGOs were displays of both pretended “humanitarian” commitments as well as economic muscle-power directed at governments like ours that readily genuflect.  Likewise, the more prominent among our political leaders are obviously impelled by electoral considerations. The civil society stances reflect, more than all else, the widespread unpopularity of the ‘Yahapalanaya’ which the president is believed to nominally lead.

Ever since the initial proposal for a moratorium on  the death penalty was sponsored by Italy in 1994 at the UN (with the majority voting against it), there has been a campaign within and outside the world body intended to expand its acceptance by member-states. The establishment of the High Commission on Human Rights (UNHCR) on the basis of proposals contained in the ‘Vienna Declaration’ of 1994 (the latter could, in retrospect, be identified as marking the pinnacle of NATO power in the unipolar world order of that time, since then in decline)  reinforced the campaign. By 2007 the moratorium secured majority support at the General Assembly, with Sri Lanka ranking among those who agreed to abide.

Global Support for banning the Death Penalty

Those at the vanguard of the moratorium campaign, especially the UNHCR and the “humanitarian” INGOs operating in their complicity with enormous corporate backing from the more powerful NATO members,  intended their efforts to culminate in a worldwide ban on capital punishment. Since our own Feature writers on this subject – I refer specifically to those published in The Island in the past few days – have done no more than reiterating evidence adduced by the campaigners at that transnational plane (some among them engaging in shadow-boxing, while adding a tender concern on the resumption of executions causing presidential insomnia!) their case should be placed under critical scrutiny.

One of the claims made by those referred to above is that there has been an increase in the number of UN member-states supporting the ‘moratorium’ on capital punishment, reaching 118 by 2018, with only 37 declining to endorse. Implicit in this claim is that the bulk of humanity wants the death penalty abolished, and that those who do not agree constitute a minority. A further look at this minority indicate, however, that the pariah states account for more than about 65% of the world population; and, this minority includes all major powers – USA, China, the Russian Federation, Japan, India, and Belarus along with others such as Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Philippines, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Vietnam, all having large populations.

Some of the major writings published globally and locally against Sri Lanka’s officially announced decision to resume the death penalty have appeared in various websites that invite reader responses. These, when examined, convey the impression that there is overwhelming support for the president’s decision, even among our miniscule English readership. Admittedly this does not provide proof for anything except perhaps the fallacy of the claim made by their authors that what they convey to us represents the “voice of the people”.

An accompanying claim repeated often by the UNHCR and its allies is that, even among the non-signatories, there has been a perceptible decline in the number of persons to whom death penalty has been administered. What does this aspect of information (available only on a few states like the US) show? Almost all their executed criminals have been convicted for murder, following protracted legal procedures and long after the commitment of the crime. There is none among them identifiable as a drug baron or convicted for drug-related crimes? Is it because the menace of underworld drug-rings has declined? No way. The obvious explanation, briefly stated, is that those who control that trade have the capacity (also derived from the drug trade) to manipulate the law (not to mention their allies among law enforcers and political bigwigs) to their advantage. Let’s not forget that the US probably has the largest market for narcotics; and it has been officially admitted that what tends to be detected of that trade in only the “tip of the iceberg”.

The third distorted “humanitarian” propaganda thrust is the absence of proof of the death penalty having a deterrent impact on heinous crimes for which the law prescribes capital punishment. Admittedly, the available statistical data do not provide a positive correlation between temporal trends of these two variables – i.e. executions and the murder rate. But, there is a fairly persuasive body of non-quantified evidence indicating that certain countries have achieved spectacular success in bringing down narcotic-related crime by implementing the sentence of death strictly in accordance of the principle of ‘Rule of Law’. The massive PRC, with its vast desolate territorial spread into the Asian interior, and the imperially inculcated drug addiction – remember the ‘Opium Wars’ (of 1839-42 & 1856-60) that enabled the British to capture almost all major ports along the Hwangho, the Yangtze and the eastern seaboard, and thus acquire effective control of a large chunk of China and off-shore islands? – has, for long, served as a safe passage for opium produced in the ‘Golden Triangle’ which until the recent past was estimated to be the source of 40-45% of the world’s raw opium. As recently as 1995, China seized as much as 2.4 mt of heroin (which according to ‘rule of thumb’ estimates could not have been more than 10% of the real volume of that trans-PRC flow (UN International Drug Control Programme, OUP, 1997). Since then, with harsh counteraction, there has been a drastic curtailment of that trade within and through intermediary transactions via China, paralleled by an increase of flow through India. Several other ‘conduits’ of the ‘Golden Triangle’ opium such as the ‘tough’ states like Vietnam and Malaysia show similar trends. In the very recent past, the most effective defiance of the “humanitarian” offensive has been recorded in the Philippines. The plain fact is that kingpins of this massive and highly ramified matrix of commercial operations in heroin – their ‘refiners’, ‘bulk conveyers’, ‘mules’, and even ‘peddlers’ – wish to remain alive to enjoy the fruits of their dastardly crimes in the context of the fact that their operations could be controlled from within prisons as effectively as from their abodes outside.

Among  the solutions to the narcotic menace advocated by the supposedly “humanitarian” opposition to the death penalty is imprisonment, setting up impenetrable barriers to the inflow of drugs, and measures to prevent the inculcation of the drug habit especially among the youth. These, of course, are easier said than done, even in the most powerful security systems of the world such as those installed when the United States is placed under “Red Alert”.

It is seldom realised that imprisonment as an alternative to execution is known to be disastrously ineffective as reflected in a far more ominous emerging trend of governance which is observable in several low-income nation-states including those of South Asia. The related specificities were initially revealed in several epoch-making studies of how the system operates in the larger cities of the sub-continent. These have been published since the mid-1990s in journals such as The Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) and Faultlines (the latter, easily accessed), and as several monographs, and leave no grounds to doubt that there prevails in these cities a nexus of underworld gang leaders, law-enforcers, politicians, trade-union bosses, persons in the mercantile elite and in lower rungs of the judiciary, that controls many aspects of city governance down to the grass-roots, being cemented in their links with the entire range of heinous crimes such as murder, arson, assault, permanent disfigurement, paediatric slavery, abduction and ransom extraction, money laundering and land grabbing.

Drugging Sri Lanka

That narcotics have not been alien to Sri Lanka, at least as a medicinal substance, is well known. Somewhat less well known to the general public is that large amounts of raw Cannabis (from which ganja is derived) continues to be grown in the wilds of the Dry Zone even today. Substances such lēgiyam, being readily available all over the country, are consumed especially by manual labourers who earn their living by working their malnourished limbs to the bone.

Heroin, the deadly narcotic (derived from the ‘poppy’ plant), was virtually unknown here until about the late 1970s, its alarming increase in clandestine trade (internal and external) and in local consumption since that time being related to major reforms of fiscal policy,  expansion of tourism, and the upsurge of labour exports to West Asia. Perhaps more important than all else in terms of impact was the escalation of the secessionist insurrection contributing to that trend. In recent years, other chemical compounds such as ‘Mandrax’, ‘Crack’ and ‘Ice’ have also made headway in the local narcotic market. To the drug barons, Sri Lanka remained one of the most “soft” venues of the region, with the “unwinnable war” providing ideal conditions of operation.

Since I rate the impact of the Eelam War high among the relevant factors, I should explain (as briefly as possible) how it elevated Sri Lanka as a centre of transcontinental drug trafficking. By about the late-1980s, the LTTE had lost much of its external income derived earlier through those serving as ‘couriers’, ‘mules’ and ‘peddlers’ of heroin, most of whom they had smuggled out of Sri Lanka. This was an outcome of the fierce competition from the larger Italian, Lebanese and Nigerian drug-rings in Europe. It induced the Tiger leadership to turn towards the outflow of heroin from both the ‘Golden Crescent’ and well as the ‘Golden Triangle’ through the Indian sub-continent, the drug transit via China, as noted above, being curtailed by PRC government action. The main sub-continental export outlets were the teeming port cities of Mumbai and Karachi.

It was at this stage that the LTTE began to build up a fleet of ‘tramp freighters’, some of it based on Mumbai, and the others skipping from one portlet and creek to another along the Tennasserim and Andaman coasts, ostensibly engaged in collecting and conveying bulky cargo such as timber, grain, fertilizer, and dehydrated spices to which customs officials, when properly oiled, pay scant attention – in short, ideal for the delivery of a part of the ‘Golden Triangle’ heroin along with the high quality Cannabis produced in some of the Indian states in the ‘Northeast’. The tramp-ship capacity also enabled the LTTE to increase their involvement in other operations such as human smuggling and gun-running from several stretches of the Indian Ocean periphery.

In the aforesaid scenario, the LTTE was able to make its way, mainly through bribery, to develop ‘Greater Colombo’ as a fairly important centre for the bulk transfer of narcotics. The continuing expansion of human smuggling operation along our southwest littoral also assisted this process. (See, Peiris, G. H. ‘Secessionist War and Terrorism in Sri Lanka: Transnational Impulses’ in Global Treat of Terror, Delhi: ICM: 85-126, for related details as examined in 2001). Moreover, as an abundance of empirical evidence show, where commercial transactions in narcotics increase, there is inevitably a spread of narcotic addiction at the local level.

The decision of Hang, come what may

Several voices raised against the presidential decision of 26 June insist that it represents a violation of earlier commitments to the UN. The validity of this objection should be assessed against the vastly changed status of Sri Lanka vis-a-vis the narcotic trade (referred to above) in the wider context of our island being enmeshed in superpower rivalry – especially the deteriorating US-PRC relations, and the US attempts through the insidious ‘MCC-SOFA-AFSA’ economic and military intrusions that have been thoroughly exposed for what they really are in several authoritative writings (see, for example, Amaratunga in The Island of 2 July).

The emotive objections to the execution of drug barons – in particular, the cry that it is a degrading punishment – need to be weighed against the well known fact that tens of thousands of lives, mostly of youth, are being destroyed by letting these brutish criminals live in prison or elsewhere. Further, drug addiction drives large number of young men and women  to various forms of crime. I do not find in the punditry of any of our feature writers prominence being accorded to these factors of the equation.

There are two other genuinely ominous dimensions of ‘Drugging of Sri Lanka’ to which reference must be made (albeit speculatively) because of their dreadful implications to the future of Sri Lanka. We have ample reason to suspect (but not with hard evidence, because in the shadowy world of drugs hard evidence is had to come by) that the processes of criminalisation of governance referred to at the end of the previous section of this essay have already taken root here. It seems likely that astronomical sums of money are being used to corrupt and destabilise the system with bribes. Needless to stress, the drug-barons are not the only agents of spreading this cancer. In this context I recollect that no less a person than a former Attorney General of the United States, Ramsey Clark stated that the CIA provided diverse forms of encouragement and support for drug production and trafficking in Afghanistan and Pakistan as part and parcel of their strategy of ousting the democratically installed Zulfiker Ali Bhuto government.

The other frightening prospect arises from the information we have on the aftermath of the Easter Sunday carnage. Is it likely that the failure of those in authority to take preventive action despite prior information being available to them? And has it been an outcome of all round bribery such that our major political leaders adroitly sidestep the issue of some of their powerful colleagues being in league with the likes of Yusuf Mohammed Ibrahim and others with Thouheeth personnel (didn’t one of the most articulate parties have him in its  ‘National List’ in 2015?), or of Minister Bathiudeen and ex-PC Governor Hisbullah developing mini-‘Caliphates’ of their own with funds directly obtained from West Asian sources?

I, like most of the people with whom I associate, detest people being killed. But I also do not endorse a blanket ban on the death penalty when it has to be resorted to as an extreme measure to curb narcotic transactions. Nor do I subscribe to the notion of universalisation of human rights, especially when the related efforts are being led by humbugs in organisations such as the UNHCR, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch or the International Crisis Group. ‘Channel 4’, equally unspeakable.

President Sirisena’s blemished record of performance is, from my viewpoint, irrelevant to this debate. Same is true for his relentless pursuit of power, for that’s what all politicians do. What does matter is whether his reported signing of the four death warrants conforms to the dictum of “greatest good for the greatest number”. There is, I confess, a personal dilemma here for which some relief is provided by yesterday’s news (The Island, 6 July) of the Supreme Court decision to suspend executions until 30 October this year. This might have the effect of removing this debate from the arena of short-term electoral considerations, while providing time for more informed and more incisive discussion on the subject than what we have hitherto had.

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