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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 1584

Lalin’s Column: Who pays the Hangman?

By Major General (retd.) Lalin Fernando

Lalin_Fernando_0.jpg“And I can see no reason why anyone should suppose that in the future the same motifs already heard will not be sounding still put to use by reasonable men to reasonable ends, or by madmen to nonsense and disaster” - Joseph Campbell

Murderers Unlimited

A few weeks ago the new Minister of Justice ‘suggested’ that hanging be re introduced to curb the incidence of murder as it was probably felt that suspending the death penalty had contributed to the constant high rate of murder.

Shockingly and unfortunately the Minister and the public came face to face with reality. For the first time they saw something like murder being openly committed in SL on TV on 29 October (29/10) at Bambalapitiya beach. Two policemen were arrested and a few more could follow. The face of the devil could not have been exhibited more devastatingly, coming hard on the heels of the pitiless Angulana murders. That policemen were involved and many onlookers observed horrified but without visible protest should not have surprised many. That the dead man was of unsound mind makes it even more tragic.

Nothing could have brought the merciless brutality that stalks the land and the depravity of some, more into focus. When the very police the ordinary citizen depends on commits mindless violence in full public view, there is no sanctuary for anyone. The remedy is a bit longer than the hangman’s rope. The 29/10 outrage would confirm that the descent into hell is in virtual free fall.

Anarchy on line

The country has to wake up to the reality of the terminal law and order situation in which crime not only murder has remained increasingly uncontrolled for over 50 years and is now about to cave in. Anarchy could follow. It has eroded confidence in the entire judicial system bar none and at almost all levels of authority. It has surrendered to blatant political interference and patronage, abetted by a callous and selfishly indifferent public and is corrupted probably beyond redemption.

A people friendly police-should be without arms

The new IGP wants to make the police people friendly. The first thing to do then is to make it an unarmed service as it will then have to rely on the support of the people and not on fire power and brute force which alienates it. Use of weapons should be the exclusive province of the armed forces.

Murder statistics – Frightening

A dismal, revolting and frightening environment exists today. Police statistics show there are on average 1500 murders committed annually over the years. There were 1488 ‘homicides/assisted suicides’ in 2008, 1663 in 2007 and 2045 in 2006. Shockingly only 328, 315, and 384 plaints were filed respectively in those 3 years which indicates that only about 20% of the alleged murderers are brought to courts. Will the 29/10 accused be brought to face justice and what will be the charge? That will be the acid test.
Human life is cheap

The main cause for the high murder rate is the pathetically low value placed on human life in SL and not just because controls are lacking. Although there is supposed to be a high rate of literacy and the people religious minded, it appears that education has virtually missed out on human values, conduct and behaviour. That is the unfortunate part of the culture of the whole people and not just a section of it. The ghosts of 1988/9 have come to haunt us.

That the public watched not in the countryside as in 1989/90, but in Colombo, the beating that led to the death of an innocent with little compunction or concern on 29/10 is a stunning indictment of how cheap life is even amongst the most pampered and sophisticated of its citizens.

There has been a stunning deterioration of religious, moral and cultural values and standards during the last quarter century for which society’s lay leaders are complicit while the religious leaders who crave political patronage too, are not without blame. Further damage is caused by those who trivialize the evils of taking human life by alluding mostly to the killing of mosquitoes and flies, deftly steering away from the greatest evil of all.

Unless this depraved, leaderless national attitude and the malfunctioning of the judicial system changes, there is little that laws however sound they are, can do to arrest the situation. Bringing back the hangman will be as effective as spraying Malathion in drains to control dengue and malaria.

Other crimes

There were also 1,803,208 road traffic offences, mainly minor infringements in 2007 whereas they were only 883, 943 in 1997. The Minister and Commissioner of Motor Traffic however say that 200,000 drivers are physically and mentally disabled cruising along the roads, while at least 30% of the drivers on the roads are not capable of driving. That they continue to drive without being apprehended is not a mystery. Apparently 6 persons die in Road Traffic Accidents (RTAs) daily. Thus there are over 2000 RTA deaths annually much of it unpunished (the NOK are bought over) man slaughter of pedestrians. There were also 1528 cases of rape in 2008 but only 238 plaints were filed. This total shows that about 10% of the population breaks the law while 3500 die unnatural and violent deaths annually. This figure which may be staggering to many shows how much brutal and lawless conduct has proliferated.

Manslaughter and rape are no less deserving of punishment to fit the crime than murder. Yet there is no political or public pressure to ensure the criminals involved in these acts too are severely punished.

Police profligates

In September 2009 it was reported that a ‘dead’ witness (according to the police) in the murder case of a Buddhist priest no less, appeared in court.

That this ‘ghost’ was formerly the OIC of the same police station did not shock many. The next week in another murder case an arrest warrant was issued for a police officer avoiding court to give evidence. In the last week of October it was reported that over 10% of CID officers, many of them long time 'operatives’ were crooked and would be transferred out. The sad thing was that no one was surprised, shocked or expected any better even in the future. The people have been in perpetual retreat.

The cancer of endemic corruption affects justice

However it is not just ineffectiveness, inefficiency, lack of motivation or corruption only of the police that is responsible for this state of affairs as often opined. Corruption is endemic and the police are only the face of society. Interference, openly by politicians and with subtlety by rich and powerful people together with the complicity of many sections of society plays a major part in obstructing the due process of law. Many cases of murder drag on for several years during which time witnesses die affecting the evidence and verdict. There is also a shockingly high acquittal rate (80 %?) in all cases in SL. This reflects alarmingly on the due process of justice which despite the urgent and felt need for reform, meanders on passively. This must mean that at best only about 60 murderers are found guilty for 1500 murders committed annually.

Judicial pardon- The Minister’s ‘santhosam’

If hanging is re introduced there is also the possibility of judicial pardon for murderers on the recommendation of the Minister. This is open to abuse. The last Governor General (GG) in the early 1960s was indignant that the then Minister of Justice regularly recommended pardons for the most heinous of murderers. Obviously the Minister was on the make and fortunately did not last long. If this pardon clause is removed the chances of justice being suborned will be minimized. However it could adversely affect the lives of the few truly innocent in case hanging is re introduced. Interestingly execution is not prescribed law in any European state less Belarus.

To hang or not to hang

Those who oppose capital punishment support life imprisonment as a just punishment for murder. They have highlighted 2 points. One that judicial hanging is allegedly pre meditated murder by the state itself and unacceptable in the 21st century while the other is that a single innocent life taken away is a price too high to pay to punish the guilty.

Many, including retired diplomats, if not the majority of the citizens including possibly many of those who watched murder was being committed in front of their eyes on 29/10 and the police would disagree. This is the eye for an eye school but only applied to murder. They state unequivocally that murderers cannot be reformed by prison sentences given in lieu of the death penalty and deserve and should be hung for the public good. This also saves the cost to the state of keeping murderers in prison for life. The police who have hit the headlines when disposing of much of the ‘ mafia’ murderers in ‘encounters’, deny both assertions of the first group and insist somewhat hypocritically that an innocent person will not ever be proved guilty in our courts. However through bitter if not resigned experience, the public sadly knows otherwise.

Transparency International Report

A Transparency International report circa 2002/3 said that the police force is the most corrupt institution in SL. The horrific scene that was shown on TV on 29/10 could not damn the police more. The report did not spare even the judiciary and said the entire legal system including judges, police, the prisons, the lawyers; the litigants and witnesses were generally corrupt.

The recently retired Chief Justice according to a Sunday newspaper agrees although the recently retired IGP is under the impression if not delusion that the public looks up to the police. Deceit and lying under oath is a trademark of SL’s courts.

Illegal fire arms

To control, prevent and trace murder the nearly 300,000 illegal firearms spread around the country according to Retired SSP Tassie Seneviratne (the official figure however is just 65,000) and politicians who say they can fire with both hands have to be respectively confiscated and subdued. That this is not being done is passive complicity in murder. These weapons may account for the majority of the 80% of unsolved murders. Therefore it may be as a first resort, more effective to recover and confiscate all illegal weapons and introduce more severe laws to deal with those who have them. No citizen should be allowed to keep even a licensed weapon in his home or work place as in Singapore, the Shangri-La of the pampered of SL. The police could charge a fee for safe guarding such weapons.

Cleaning the Augean stables

It is imperative that to bring the incidence of murder under control that the entire judicial system should be taken to the cleaners first, beginning with the police. However the police reflect society and not the other way round. Society has to change its attitude to law and order drastically so that public good is foremost and criminals are punished. There can be no ‘shaping’ (looking after) of anyone big or small, especially politicians, be it for speeding or grave crime. It is society that will make or break the police by either refusing to give bribes or by giving them. The police service should be very selective in recruitment, should be independent, very well paid and administered, technologically far more advanced and free from interference.

Moral re-armament

Moral re armament of society must be set into motion by respected leaders from all walks of life to raise the moral standards and expectations of the people and together bring pressure on the politicians, police and the entire judicial system to reform itself to meet the challenge. The movement must begin from the home and school to university and work places. School principals, professionals including military officers and businessmen, civic action groups and the media, supported at home by parents and elders must be ready to stand up to those responsible or crime. The call for swift and harsh legal punishments which no doubt are tested deterrents as in Singapore and Saudia will not suffice to control the situation if respect for life, law and justice remains unchanged.

Eradication of poverty

Poverty, greed, craving for land and wealth and mostly sheer cruelty, more than lack of self control account for most murders. The standard of living of the majority of the people must be raised so that they have self respect and respect for others life. If they continue to be unemployed and homeless or live in slums or sub standard housing, life will continue to be considered cheap and committing crime even murder will be chanced. Living in prison is not much of a feared change for a man who has no home or a job. It is the poor that are almost exclusively found guilty of violent crime although there are the exceptions. The rich can hire lawyers who will find ways for their escape as has been abundantly exposed in the recent massive frauds that have shaken the people.

The people’s choice- Life imprisonment or hanging

The punishment for murder in the prevailing circumstances especially in the 21t century should preferably be life imprisonment and not execution because of the frailties of the legal system. Religious susceptibilities should also be considered.

It was in doubt before 29/10 whether the people wanted the re introduction of hanging, how ever much they wanted the murder rate to be drastically reduced and the murderers severely punished. If however the politicians reintroduce the death penalty executions should be carried out on the banks of the Diyawanna to keep that lot satiated.

Whatever the choice it is clear that if nothing is done anarchy will follow and the vultures and ghouls will take over and instead of 1500 murders there will very soon be 30,000 a year. That is the choice for society and it is not the police and the judges that can rescue the country but the people themselves, morally strengthened and ready to stand up for what is right and stoutly deny support for those who act criminally or support crime.

“I have never killed a man but have read many obituaries with great pleasure” (Clarence Darrow - Famous American defence lawyer)

- Asian Tribune

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