In comments made to parliament on Wednesday, Maithripala Sirisena said he was committed to bringing back capital punishment for drug offenders, months after vowing a tougher line on spiralling narcotics-related crime.
“I hope to carry out the first hanging within a month or two,” he said. “I appeal to human rights organisations not to try to pressure us on this decision.”
Criminals in Sri Lanka are regularly given death sentences for murder, rape and drug-related crimes but, until now, their punishments have been commuted to life imprisonment.
Following a visit to the Philippines in January, Sirisena said he wanted to copy President Rodrigo Duterte’s ruthless tactics in dealing with illegal drugs.
Duterte ran on a law-and-order platform that included controversial promises to kill thousands of people involved in the drug trade, even officials.
“Even though I have not implemented some of the decisions of President Duterte, I will not bow to international non-governmental (rights) organisations and change my decision on death penalty for drug offences,” Sirisena said last month, praising the “decisive action” of the Philippine president who has offered anti-narcotics help to Sri Lanka.
“The war against crime and drugs carried out by you is an example to the whole world, and personally to me,” Sirisena said in a speech after meeting Duterte in the Philippines last month. “Drug menace is rampant in my country and I feel that we should follow your footsteps to control this hazard.”
In the Philippines, human rights advocates and an opposition senator have said the death toll in the government’s war on drugs has already surpassed 20,000 since Duterte came to office in 2016.
The government, however, disputes that number, saying the death toll is much lower. According to a government report published on October 31, a total of 4,999 people were killed since the launch of the campaign in 2016.
On Tuesday, Sri Lanka’s Justice Minister Thalatha Athukorale said administrative procedures for the execution of five drug convicts had been completed and Sirisena now only had to sign the death warrants.
The president did not say how many would be condemned in the first hangings.
But prison officials said on Tuesday that authorities were still trying to fill a vacancy for a hangman, despite placing advertisements for the position last year offering a salary of 35,000 rupees ($200) a month.
While Sri Lanka’s last execution was more than four decades ago, an executioner was in the post until his retirement in 2014.
Three replacements since have quit after short stints at the unused gallows.