As the nation revives the death penalty, Cardinal Ranjith must walk a fine line

In July the Sri Lankan president, Maithripala Sirisena, announced he would be reviving the death penalty for drug traffickers who continued to orchestrate drug deals while in prison. The last execution was in 1976 and the president’s decision was criticised by human rights groups, the European Union and Anglican bishops. Yet the country’s leading churchman, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo, appeared to support the move, provoking controversy.

“When people who have been convicted and sentenced to death continue to hurt others in an organised manner,” the cardinal said, “it would only be fair to impose punishments on them.” Facing criticism, he later clarified that he was opposed to capital punishment but that “criminal minds that sought to destroy social peace and harm hundreds” should not go unpunished.

Cardinal Ranjith has long been seen as too close to the government. Catholics are a small minority, making up about six per cent of a country that is predominantly Sinhalese Buddhist. The Church, potentially vulnerable to outbreaks of Buddhist nationalism, relies on political patronage.

Fr Ashok Stephen OMI, a lawyer and director of the Colombo-based Centre for Society and Religion, said that, instead of reviving the death penalty, the government should focus on closing the loopholes that allow those in prison to continue to engage in the drugs trade. He cited one prisoner who claimed to have seen evidence of prison officers’ involvement. “Without the blessings of prison officers,” he said, drugs trafficking would not flourish behind bars. “Where is the action to shut off these loopholes?” he asked. Fr Stephen added that corruption in the political and judicial system was so widespread that the death penalty would not succeed in deterring crime.

Meanwhile, the prison service has said it is hiring two executioners and President Sirisena announced plans to start with 18 drug offenders. Cardinal Ranjith, while not supporting the executions, is unlikely to be the president’s loudest critic.

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection