Capital punishment in Sri Lanka

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Capital punishment is legal in Sri Lanka. However, since June 23, 1976, there have been no executions, although death sentences were handed down continuously by the High and Supreme Courts for murder and drug trafficking convictions. These were automatically commuted to life in prison. The government decided to reinstate capital punishment in 2004 for cases of rape, drug trafficking and murder after the assassination of High Court judge Sarath Ambepitiya. Perjury that results in execution of an innocent person can also result in the death penalty. However, due to significant opposition to the move no executions have been carried out.


The death penalty has a long history in Sri Lanka. The British restricted the death penalty after they took control of the island in 1815 to the crimes of murder, and "waging war against the King." After independence, the then Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike abolished capital punishment in 1956. However, it was rapidly reintroduced after his assassination in 1959. Opposition to the death penalty started becoming increasingly widespread and the United National Party government modified the use of the capital punishment in its 1978 rewrite of the constitution. Under the new arrangement, death sentences could only be carried out if authorised by the trial judge, the attorney general and the minister of justice. If there was no agreement, the sentence was to be commuted to life imprisonment. The sentence was also to be ratified by the President. This clause effectively ended executions. The last execution in Sri Lanka took place in 1976.


Over the last decade however, president Chandrika Kumaratunga made several attempts to reintroduce the death penalty. In March 1999, after spurts of violence near the end of her first term in office, she stated that the government would be reintroducing the death penalty. However, she was forced to back down in the face of overwhelming public protest. The issue hung in the balance, with all death sentences from then on being neither commuted to life nor carried out. Discussions took place with the result that the motion which commuted all death sentences to life in prison was revoked in January 2001. There are currently more than 100 prisoners on death row in Sri Lanka.

On November 19, 2004, High Court judge Sarath Ambepitiya was gunned down as he arrived home from work. He had a reputation as a judge who handed out tough sentences. This event immediately prompted Kumaratunga to effectively reinstate capital punishment. The death penalty, if put into action would be carried out by hanging.