The times we live in are full of irony. It is thus not surprising that it was the Minister of Buddhasasana who announced something contrary to the Buddhist ideals of non-violence and compassion – that is, the Cabinet’s decision to implement the death penalty for drug traffickers.

This is certainly a popular move. The death penalty, after all, does find strong support in Sri Lanka. This explains the constant clamour to reactivate the gallows. “Hang the criminals,” cry the advocates of death, “and we can get about building a safe and moral society.”

If only things were that simple!

The fact is, implementing the death penalty will not create a decent society. Rather, it will push us down a slippery slope where emotions cloud reason and rationality. It will have profound social implications and erode our humanity.

Capital punishment will certainly mask the real issues confronting us. Executing criminals now and then will give us the illusion that justice has been done, but what is the point if others continue their activities with the patronage of powerful law enforcement officials and politicians? The gallows will only serve as a smokescreen for the vast-scale corruption and other evils at the very top.

In such a context, it is hard to imagine how the death penalty will curb crime. What will really deter criminals, however, is the certainty that they will be apprehended, prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to the full force of the law. This is what needs to be pursued.

Let’s take a look at what led to the decision to resume executions after 42 years. An upsurge in drug activities was reported and the President, greatly alarmed, felt that something drastic had to be done. The cabinet spokesperson Dr. Rajitha Senaratne then announced action to identify and execute convicts on death row who had been controlling drug operations from prison. This is a shocking revelation! It’s hard to imagine how such things were allowed to happen in the first place. And if true, what it means is that something is very, very rotten at the core of our law enforcement and penal systems. How then can they be trusted to administer justice in situations involving the death penalty.

The decision can be regarded as a knee-jerk reaction at best, and as being driven by sinister political motives at worst. It is certainly myopic, for there would be grave consequences. Once implemented for drug trafficking, it could be extended to other crimes such as murder. The death penalty is an inherently dangerous thing. In fact, the whole process is subject to the flaws of human nature. It has rightly been described as arbitrary and capricious. So much depends on the decisions of judges, juries and prosecutors, not to mention the machinations of the rich and powerful. Given the Sri Lankan experience, we should be very wary.

The death penalty is an inherently dangerous thing. In fact, the whole process is subject to the flaws of human nature

The judicial process here – as in many other places around the world – is severely flawed. This means there is much potential for miscarriages of justice to occur. It is easy to believe that innocent people do not get convicted. After all, does not the law require that a crime be proved beyond reasonable doubt? However, in practice things are far different from the ideal. A miscarriage of justice could occur due to many reasons –the prejudices of judges and juries; perjury; suppression of vital evidence; framing by the police; fabricated evidence; seeking and interpreting evidence according to a preconceived theory disregarding other possible views; and of course manipulation through political interference. Across the world, countless people have been executed for crimes they didn’t commit. This is a frightening prospect. It means that the state – and all of us by extension – will have innocent blood on our conscience.

If a death sentence is carried out, then it is final and irrevocable. Nothing can be done to bring the dead man back to life. However, if a person is imprisoned and new evidence later comes to light proving his innocence or casting serious doubts about his guilt, then he can be released and compensated. Imprisoning a man due to wrongful conviction is terrible, but it is far better than putting him to death. The line between guilt and innocence is sometimes very blurred.

In many criminal trials, things are extremely complicated and it becomes very hard to reach a conclusion with absolute certainty. A reading of some of Sri Lanka’s celebrated criminal cases – including the Sathasivam Case and the Pauline de Croos Case – will make this abundantly clear.

It can be baffling when the scales of evidence are not clearly weighed down one way or the other. Even medical opinion can be divided. How then does one rationally assess the odds and probabilities of guilt? When the prescribed sentence is death, it is frightening that a life should hang so precariously on some arbitrary factors that will ultimately tilt the scales of justice.

In Sri Lanka, as in the US and many other countries, the law is applied unevenly. The American experience shows how the death penalty is largely inflicted upon the poor, the uneducated and the mentally ill. The rich and powerful rarely suffer the consequences. After all, being able to afford a clever and eminent lawyer can make the difference between conviction and acquittal. By contrast, the poor cannot even afford a mediocre lawyer. Here it is worth quoting that Athenian statesman Solon, who said over 2,500 years ago, “Laws are like spiders webs: if some poor weak creature come up against them, it is caught; but a bigger one can break through and get away.”

There is also the fact that executions have a dehumanizing effect on society. Rather than promoting morality, they will distort the minds of our young. We often hear people say things like, “We must have punishments like in Saudi Arabia where criminals are publicly beheaded.” When they express such views, are they not aware of the deep flaws in such societies? Why do countries with the harshest laws have so many people who are cruel and intolerant, so hypocritical and repressive to women? Have women in such places not been killed for having sexual relationships?

Severe punishments are a reflection of unenlightened societies. Rather than protecting people and resolving existing social ills, they come back full circle and corrupt from within. As the 18th century Italian jurist Cesare Beccaria stated in his highly influential treatise On Crimes and Punishment (1764), “The death penalty cannot be useful, because of the example of barbarity it gives men.”

Sri Lanka has a long and gruesome history of executions. And it began well before the gallows were introduced. It is said that during the days of the Sinhalese kings, there were 32 methods of execution. These were described by the death penalty advocate Senator E. J. Cooray many years ago as “ranging from the famous arecanut tree device where a man was tied to two trees and then rent asunder, down to the barrel device where the victim was put into a barrel with nails projecting on the inside and rolled down a hill or slope.”

There are numerous acts of cruelty recorded in the olden days. The reign of the 17th century Kandyan king Rajasinghe II provides some examples. Robert Knox, who lived in the kingdom at the time, wrote that the king’s cruelty was evident in the tortures and painful deaths he inflicted on his subjects. He noted how those who earned the king’s displeasure were first tormented by having their flesh cut and pulled away by pincers and burnt with hot irons. When the prisoners were led through the city to the place of execution, dogs would follow to eat them.

“At the place of execution,” wrote Knox, “there are always some sticking upon poles, others hanging up in quarters upon trees; besides, what lies killed by elephants on the ground, or by other ways. This place is always in the greatest high-way, that all may see and stand in awe…”

Knox’s book An Historical Relation of Ceylon has a terrifying image of one such victim impaled on a stake.

The last king of Kandy – Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe – was also known for his cruelty. When Maha Adigar Ehelapola was accused of conspiring against him and defected to the British, the king had the man’s wife and children executed. The children, including an infant, were beheaded; their mother was reportedly forced to pound their heads in a mortar with a pestle before being drowned in the Bogambara Lake. The whole of Kandy wept and grieved over this atrocity on May 17, 1814. It weakened the kingdom, and before long the British were able to hoist the Union Jack and subjugate the entire country; thus ended a tradition of national independence that went back 2359 years.

Under the British, the gallows became a common form of execution. In times of revolt and disturbances, however, they resorted to other methods. Thus the leader of the Uva-Wellassa uprising, Keppetipola, was beheaded and Puran Appu, who led the Matale rebellion, was executed by firing squad.

The town of Kegalle witnessed a sensational public hanging in 1857. That day, five men convicted of murdering an aratchchi (local official) were executed on a common platform. An account in The Times of Ceylon stated that they took leave of their families in a heart-rending scene. Constables cleared the path to the gallows before twelve Buddhist monks led the procession, and shortly before the executions these monks were said to have “displayed fearful stentorian volubility in reciting several passages from their religious books…” The report describes the final moments thus – “the usual necessaries were then gone through, when upon a signal from the Fiscal, down went the trap door, and the poor fellows were hurled into eternity.”

The execution of legendary outlaw Saradiel on Gallows Hill, Kandy in May 1864 attracted a vast crowd. Among the spectators were many European women. They would have all been surprised to see that he was a small man, standing at just 5 feet 3 inches, rather than the powerfully-built and fearsome one they imagined him to be.

Saradiel had earned fame and notoriety with his daring exploits. Operating from the mountain hideout of Utuwankanda, he and his gang waylaid many carriages and coaches on the Colombo-Kandy road. After he was caught and hanged by the British authorities, he was celebrated in legend as a Robin Hood kind of figure who distributed his plunder among the poor.

Not long after Saradiel’s execution, a large crowd gathered to witness the hanging of a man named Appu Tamby at Kayman’s Gate in the Pettah. They were described as “a vast mob of lookers on, principally of the lowest class.” An execution in Moratuwa a few days later also lured many people. The Times of Ceylon referred to that hanging as a ‘disgusting spectacle’ and stated that its demoralizing effect on some of the hardened criminals present will probably manifest itself in a crime as foul as that for which the murderer was convicted. The man had protested his innocence before he died.

The execution of legendary outlaw Saradiel on Gallows Hill, Kandy in May 1864 attracted a vast crowd

Many years earlier, J. W. Grylls gave a first-hand account of a public execution. The condemned men were a father and son sentenced to be hanged at a marketplace in Kandy. He wrote that the murderers were seated in a cart covered with a black cloth, and described them grabbing away at rice and curry from two large bowls as if their life depended on it. He added that even when they arrived at the foot of the drop, “they did not budge until they had finished the last morsel, and when this was finished they looked as if they had consummated a most glorious action…”

Some executions in the early part of the 20th century were described by Leonard Woolf – author of the acclaimed novel The village in the Jungle. As a junior civil servant based in Kandy, he had witnessed some gruesome hangings in the Bogambara Prison. He wrote in his autobiography that the body of one convict “went on twitching violently.” The executioner finally strangulated the man pulling him by the legs.

Woolf describes another execution that was far more horrifying. A miscalculation of the drop or some other problem resulted in the convict’s head being practically torn from his body, “and a great jet of blood spouted up three or four feet, covering the gallows and the priest praying on the steps.”

According to Woolf, the death penalty was totally useless. He wrote that the men he saw executed had all committed unpremeditated crimes of violence, killing from passion, anger, or in a quarrel. He stated that the death penalty “is not a deterrent to crime; in fact, by the mystique of horror which it creates it tends to induce pathological or weak-minded people to imitate the crimes for which they have recently been executed.”

Woolf was not the only person to be horrified by the hangings here. Many years ago, a retired jailor M. J. Kanapathipillai stated in the Ceylon Daily News, “Having witnessed over fifty executions I say the executions are more brutal than the actual murder the victim had committed.”

The death penalty was suspended after the coalition government of SWRD Bandaranaike assumed power in 1956. At that time, and for some years after, there was much debate on the issue among politicians. Some spoke about cases where innocent people were sentenced to die. R. E. Jayatilaka said he knew of such cases, and asked, “Can you conceive a situation where an innocent man, because of the weight of evidence against him, loses his life?” Senator E. W. Kannangara also said he had known of two cases where innocents died on the gallows. He said the men were convicted on the evidence led, and added “nothing could shake the evidence and the men went to the gallows. Everyone in the village, everyone who had anything to do with the case knew it was perjured evidence but no one could do anything in the matter.” He was referring to perjury – or giving false evidence under oath – which has always been rampant in Sri Lanka.

Frederick de Silva, a politician who represented Kandy, gave a shocking example of how justice can be perverted by unscrupulous people. He referred to a case where he had defended a man charged with committing a triple murder. During the trial, it became clear that the real killer was the chief witness called by the prosecution! The Justice Minister M. W. H. de Silva noted the impulsive nature of murders here, and felt that focusing on social conditions and education would lead to a decline. He also said there had been cases “where owing to mistaken identity, or false evidence, or some circumstance innocent people have been convicted and hanged.”

Dr. Colvin R. de Silva – a prominent figure in the socialist movement – also felt that innocent people could suffer. He noted that there were serious weaknesses in the machinery of justice, from the early stages of investigation up to the later stages of the trial. He also thought the existence of the death penalty went against “any systematic effort at fundamental social reform.” As a leftist, he obviously felt that socio-economic conditions contributed much to crime, and that the benefits of hanging people were illusory.

In 1958, the government appointed a commission of inquiry to look into the death penalty. It comprised of eminent men and was headed by Dr. Norval Morris, who became a highly influential law professor and criminologist. The Morris report was very comprehensive. Its verdict was that the death penalty did not have a stronger deterrent effect than protracted imprisonment, and could claim innocent lives due to miscarriages of justice. It also noted that whether or not a state used the death penalty, murders will occur in numbers and frequency determined by other factors inherent in the social, political and economic conditions of the country.

However, just two weeks after the report was published, Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike was assassinated. He was shot by a monk named Somarama, and in the shock and anger that followed, the death penalty was reintroduced.

Though the Morris report was brushed aside after that, it came to be regarded as an invaluable study on the death penalty in other countries. Following the restoration of the death penalty after Bandaranaike’s death in 1959, many men died on the gallows. Among them was Maru Sira. His hanging in 1975 led to controversy and evoked much public sympathy (see box). The last person to be judicially executed in Sri Lanka was J. M. Chandradasa, a young farmer convicted of murder. He was hanged at Welikada Prison on June 23, 1976. One of his final acts was to gift his corneas to the Eye Donation Society. The gallows in Sri Lanka has since not functioned as a machine of death. However, if the shrill calls for execution prevail, many more prisoners are likely to die at the end of a rope.

The decision by the President and Cabinet has generated heated debate. We now need to ask ourselves an important question – what can a politicized society like ours achieve from the death penalty? We can always hang some convicted drug traffickers, but what’s the point when the big-time players continue unhindered with political patronage? By demanding the noose, are we not deceiving ourselves and masking our inability to confront the real issues?

Sometime ago, a survey in Sri Lanka showed that the public considered the police and the judiciary to be the most corrupt institutions in the country. This is hardly surprising. However, what is shocking is this – how then can the public trust these institutions in a very serious matter of life and death?

There is no quick-fix solution to crime. However, a professional, efficient and independent criminal justice system will work far better than the gallows. The sad truth is that our law enforcement, judicial and penal machinery is severely compromised; it is defective in many parts. The police are often alleged to falsely implicate people in crimes, including drug offences. The powerful are known to use their connections to get away or manipulate things. Less influential people risk being wrongfully convicted due to fabricated evidence, perjury and misconduct by prosecutors. Further, there is no consistency or evenness in sentencing.

Such failings – and the fact that it has no deterrent effect – makes it hard to support the death penalty. Opposing executions does not mean being soft on crime. Rather, one opposes because of the grave injustices it can cause to certain individuals in particular and the dehumanization of society in general.

The fact is, those behind bars can always be kept in check. The real danger is from those who keep evading arrest, prosecution and conviction; the ones beyond the reach of the so-called ‘long arm of the law.’ Bringing them to justice – rather than hanging those already incarcerated – is what will create a safer society.

The sad truth is that our law enforcement, judicial and penal machinery is severely compromised; it is defective in many parts

It is simply not possible to promote civilized behavior through state-sanctioned killings. We must ask ourselves whether we can further brutalize a country that has already seen so much hatred and violence. Some soul-searching may lead us to a society where truer justice prevails. Or else, we can find meaning in executions and enter the dark era of the gallows.


The post of executioner has a habit of falling vacant in Sri Lanka. In recent times, several people hired as official hangmen have quit or failed to show up for work (despite not carrying out executions). In 2014, one man resigned in shock after seeing the gallows! The position has been vacant since, and now there are plans to hire two hangmen.

Several years ago, over 150 people applied for the role after a job posting. According to The Economist, they included a one-eyed man, autorickshaw drivers, retired military men, labourers and a university student. “Ten aspirants were rejected, mostly because they were too old or too young,” wrote the newspaper. “One woman was turned down on the ground that her gender would make her too emotional.



The first formal execution on the gallows takes place; the man is hanged for rising against the British

Legendary outlaw Saradiel executed on Gallows Hill, Kandy

The government of SWRD Bandaranaike suspends the death penalty

Capital punishment reintroduced after assassination of Bandaranaike. His assassin Talduwe Somarama is hanged in 1962

J.M. Chandradasa – the last person to be judicially executed – is hanged at Welikada Prison



Amnesty International urged Sri Lanka to pull back from plans to implement the death penalty, which it called a cruel and irreversible punishment “By resuming executions after more than 40 years, Sri Lanka will do immense damage to its reputation” said Amnesty’s Dinushika Dissanayake.

Noting that most of the world has turned its back on the death penalty, she said the country risks heading in the wrong direction and joining a shrinking minority of states that persist with this horrific practice.

“There is no evidence that the death penalty has a unique deterrent effect against crime,” Dinushika asserted. “Executions are never the solution and, for drug-related offences, constitute a violation of international law.”


Around 140 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice

23 countries carried out executions in 2017. Only 11 of these – or 6% of the world’s total –carried out executions every year in the past five years, according to Amnesty International

At least 993 executions were recorded last year. Most took place in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan. However, the figure does not include China – the world’s leading executioner. In China, such information is classified as a state secret

Common methods of execution are hanging, beheading, lethal injection and shooting

Over 20,000 people are on death row across the world.

More than 400 convicts are on death row in Sri Lanka



Maru Sira – whose real name was D. J. Siripala – led a life of crime and was sentenced to jail. However, he earned the reputation of a folk hero through some daring escapes. These included escaping from a prison van while handcuffed and tunneling his way out of the Anuradhapura jail with other prisoners.

While in hiding, Siripala was sentenced to death in absentia for killing a man in 1974. After his capture, it was decided to hang him on August 5, 1975 at the Bogambara Prison. The prison officials, however, feared him because of his reputation, and some threats he uttered only added to their feelings of anxiety. Hence, to ensure that things went smoothly, they drugged him into a state of unconsciousness with an excessive dose of Largactil. In that state, according to an inquiry later, he “was carried on a stretcher, laid across the trap door of the scaffold, and the noose placed round his neck, and upon the trap door being opened his body dropped 2 feet, 2 inches and death was caused by asphyxia by strangulation…”

The manner of Siripala’s execution disturbed many people. Public sympathy grew when the sad plight of his family was publicized. His wife Ran Menika, who used to visit him once a month in prison, was so poor that she had to sell her weekly ration of sugar to find money for the bus fare.

The admiration and pity he evoked resulted in two popular films about Maru Sira – Siripala Saha Ran Menika and Maruwa Samaga Wase.