Sri Lankan leader says bill to scrap executions is illegal

Former Sri Lanka President Maithripala Sirisena

(Photo Credit: Eranga Jayawardena / AP)

Sri Lanka’s president said Monday that the attorney general has informed him that a bill presented to Parliament last week seeking to abolish the death penalty is illegal.

Lawmaker Bandula Lal Bandarigoda presented a bill in Parliament seeking to abolish the death penalty and commute the sentences of those already on death row to life imprisonment.

The move came after President Maithripala Sirisena signed the death warrants of four prisoners convicted of drug offenses and is seen as an effort by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to stall the planned executions. The two leaders formed a unity government in 2015 and have now become rivals within the government after a fallout.

Sirisena said at a public event Monday that Attorney General Dappula de Livera told him the bill was illegal.

Despite the attorney general’s opinion, the bill can still be taken up for a vote in 14 days unless it is challenged in the Supreme Court.

Sri Lanka has not executed a prisoner since 1976 and the proposal to end the moratorium drew expressions of concern from nations and rights groups. The European Union said Sirisena’s move contradicted the government’s commitment last year to the U.N. General Assembly to maintain its 43-year moratorium on the death penalty.

The EU said that the planned executions will send the wrong signal to the international community and investors, and that it will monitor Sri Lanka’s commitments to international conventions. Sri Lanka has lucrative market access to the EU through a preferential trade scheme that hinges on those commitments.

After Sirisena’s announcement, Wickremesinghe said his party opposes executions because the Sri Lankan government under Sirisena had supported U.N. resolutions for a moratorium on the death penalty in 2016 and 2018.

Prison officials hired two hangmen after Sirisena sanctioned the executions.

The Supreme Court has stayed the executions until Oct. 30 in response to a petition by a death row inmate.